Excuses and Apologies

I re-wrote the section on excuses for the next edition of TICB and I thought it might be useful to post here. The main difference between this one and the one in the 11th edition is that this one distinguishes excuses and apologies and discusses some qualities of the effective apology.

Repairing Conversational Problems: Excuses and Apologies

At times you may say the wrong thing; then, because you can’t erase the message (communication really is irreversible), you may try to offer some kind of an explanation; you’d try to account for what happened. Perhaps the most common methods for doing so are the excuse and the apology, two closely related conversational accounts.
Excuses, central to all forms of communication and interaction, are “explanations or actions that lessen the negative implications of an actor’s performance, thereby maintaining a positive image for oneself and others” (Snyder, 1984; Snyder, Higgins, & Stucky, 1983). Apologies are expressions of regret or sorrow for having done what you did or for what happened. Often the two are blended—I didn’t realize how fast I was driving (the excuse); I’m really sorry (the apology). Let’s separate them and look first at the excuse.

The Excuse

Excuses seem especially in order when you say or are accused of saying something that runs counter to what is expected, sanctioned, or considered “right” by the people with whom you’re talking. Ideally, the excuse lessens the negative impact of the message.

Some Motives for Excuse Making
The major motive for excuse making seems to be to maintain your self-esteem, to project a positive image to yourself and to others. Excuses also represent an effort to reduce stress: You may feel that if you can offer an excuse—especially a good one that is accepted by those around you—it will reduce the negative reaction and the subsequent stress that accompanies a poor performance.
Excuses also may enable you to maintain effective interpersonal relationships even after some negative behavior. For example, after criticizing a friend’s behavior and observing the negative reaction to your criticism, you might offer an excuse such as, “Please forgive me; I’m really exhausted. I’m just not thinking straight.” Excuses enable you to place your messages—even your possible failures—in a more favorable light.

Types of Excuses
Different researchers have classified excuses into varied categories (Scott & Lyman, 1968; Cody & Dunn, 2007). One of the best typologies classifies excuses into three main types (Snyder, 1984):
• I didn’t do it: Here you deny that you have done what you’re being accused of. You may then bring up an alibi to prove you couldn’t have done it, or perhaps you may accuse another person of doing what you’re being blamed for (“I never said that” or “I wasn’t even near the place when it happened”). These “I didn’t do it” types are generally the worst excuses (unless they’re true), because they fail to acknowledge responsibility and offer no assurance that this failure will not happen again.
• It wasn’t so bad: Here you admit to doing it but claim the offense was not really so bad or perhaps that there was justification for the behavior (“I only padded the expense account, and even then only modestly” or “Sure, I hit him, but he was asking for it”).
• Yes, but: Here you claim that extenuating circumstances accounted for the behavior; for example, that you weren’t in control of yourself at the time or that you didn’t intend to do what you did (“It was the liquor talking” or “I never intended to hurt him; I was actually trying to help”).

Good and Bad Excuses
The most important question for most people is what makes a good excuse and what makes a bad excuse (Snyder, 1984; Slade, 1995). How can you make good excuses and thus get out of problems, and how can you avoid bad excuses that only make matters worse? Good excuse makers use excuses in moderation; bad excuse makers rely on excuses too often. Good excuse makers avoid blaming others, especially those they work with; bad excuse makers blame even their work colleagues. In a similar way, good excuse makers don’t attribute their failure to others or to the company; bad excuse makers do. Good excuse makers acknowledge their own responsibility for the failure by noting that they did something wrong (not that they lack competence); bad excuse makers refuse to accept any responsibility for their failures. Not surprisingly, excuse makers who accept responsibility will be perceived as more credible, competent, and likable than those who deny responsibility (Dunn & Cody, 2000).
What makes one excuse effective and another ineffective will vary from one culture to another and will depend on factors already discussed such as the culture’s individualism–collectivism, its power distance, the values it places on assertiveness, and various other cultural tendencies (Tata, 2000). But, at least in the United States, researchers seem to agree that the best excuses in interpersonal communication contain five elements (Slade, 1995; Coleman, 2002).
1. You demonstrate that you really understand the problem and that your partner’s feelings are legitimate and justified. Avoid minimizing the issue or your partner’s feelings (“It was only $100; you’re overreacting,” “I was only two hours late”).
2. You acknowledge your responsibility. If you did something wrong, avoid qualifying your responsibility (“I’m sorry if I did anything wrong”) or expressing a lack of sincerity (“Okay, I’m sorry; it’s obviously my fault—again”). On the other hand, if you can demonstrate that you had no control over what happened and therefore cannot be held responsible, your excuse is likely to be highly persuasive (Heath, Stone, Darley, & Grannemann, 2003).
3. You acknowledge your own displeasure at what you did; you make it clear that you’re not happy with yourself for having done what you did.
4. You make it clear that your misdeed will never happen again.
Some researchers include a fifth step which is really an apology. Here you would request forgiveness for what you did. Let’s look at the apology more specifically.

The Apology

In its most basic form, an apology is an expression of regret for something you did; it’s a statement that you’re sorry. And so, the most basic of all apologies is simply: I’m sorry. In popular usage, the apology includes some admission of wrongdoing on the part of the person making the apology. Sometimes the wrongdoing is acknowledged explicitly (I’m sorry I lied) and sometimes only by implication (I’m sorry you’re so upset).
In many cases the apology also includes a request for forgiveness (Please forgive my lateness) and some assurance that this won’t happen again (Please forgive my lateness; it won’t happen again).
According to the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge website (http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/3481.html, accessed May 20, 2008) apologies are useful for two main reasons. Apologies (1) help repair relationships (as you can easily imagine) and (2) repair the reputation of the wrongdoer. So, if you do something wrong in your relationship, for example, an apology will help you repair the relationship with your partner and perhaps reduce the level of conflict. At the same time, however, realize that other people know about your behavior (just think Jerry Springer) and an apology will help improve the image of you that they have in their minds.
An effective apology, like an effective excuse, must be crafted for the specific situation. Effective apologies are situational. An effective apology to a long-time lover, to a parent, or to a new supervisor are likely to be very different because the individuals are different and the relationships are different. And so, the first rule of an effective apology is to take into consideration the uniqueness of the situation—the people, the context, the cultural rules, the relationship, the specific wrongdoing—for which you might want to apologize. Each situation will call for a somewhat different message of apology.
Nevertheless we can offer some general recommendations. Combining the insights of a wide variety of researches, seven dos and seven don’ts can be offered for apologizing effectively.

Seven Dos:
1. Do admit wrongdoing if indeed wrongdoing occurred. Accept responsibility. Own your own actions; don’t try to pass them off as the work of someone else. Instead of “Smith drives so slow, it’s a wonder I’m only 30 minutes late,” say “I should have taken traffic into consideration.”
2. Do be apologetic. Say (and mean) the words I’m sorry or What I did was wrong.
3. Do state in specific rather than general terms what you’ve done. Instead of “I’m sorry for what I did,” say “I’m sorry for getting drunk at the party and flirting with everyone.”
4. Do express understanding of how the other person feels and acknowledge the legitimacy of these feelings, for example, “You have every right to be angry; I should have called.”
5. Do express your regret that this has created a problem for the other person, “I’m sorry I made you miss your appointment.”
6. Do offer to correct the problem (whenever this is possible), “I’m sorry I didn’t clean up the mess I made; I’ll do it now.”
7. Do give assurance that this will not happen again. Say, quite simply, “It won’t happen again” or better and more specifically, “I won’t be late again.”

Seven Don’ts
At the same time that you follow the suggestions for crafting an effective apology, try to avoid these common ineffective messages:
1. Don’t apologize when it isn’t necessary.
2. Don’t justify your behavior by mentioning that everyone does it, for example, “Everyone leaves work early on Friday.”
3. Don’t justify your behavior by saying that the other person has done something equally wrong: “So I play poker; you play the lottery.”
4. Don’t accuse the other person of contributing to the problem. “I should have known you’re overly anxious about receiving the figures exactly at 9 a.m.”
5. Don’t minimize the hurt that this may have caused. Avoid such comments as, “So the figures arrived a little late. What’s the big deal?”
6. Don’t include excuses with the apology. Avoid such combinations as “I’m sorry the figures are late but I had so much other work to do.” An excuse often takes back the apology and says, in effect, I’m really not sorry because there was good reason for what I’ve done but I’m saying “I’m sorry” to cover all my bases and to make this uncomfortable situation go away.
7. Don’t take the easy way out and apologize through e-mail (unless the wrongdoing was committed in e-mail or if e-mail is your only or main form of communication). Generally, it’s more effective to use a more personal mode of communication—face-to-face or phone, for example. It’s harder but it’s more effective.


Anonymous said...

Nicely said. These guidelines could easily transfer to a "dating guide." People who make a habit of excuses for bad behavior are usually not people you want to develop a relationship with. I grew up with "low responsibility" parents, who have an excuse for everything. I went in the opposite direction, and took responsibility for everything. This quality attracts narcissistic types -- those who dodge responsibility, often cleverly. It took many years to see past the behavior that was modeled for me and develop relationships with people who don't make excuses, take responsibility for their actions, and apologize [show remorse] for transgressions. And I no longer pick up the pieces and take responsibility for those who refuse to do their part. Just tuning in to "excuse making" for a short amount of time can alter the entire course of one's life.

Michael Smith said...

Agreed. Very well said. Its an interesting question to ask, when was teh last time you gave a "real" apology, and when was the last time a "real" apology was given to you?

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