I wrote this note on apologizing as I was revising my interpersonal text and thought it might be useful in class, perhaps as a topic for discussion, perhaps as a preview to formulating or analyzing apologies.
In its most basic form, an apology is an expression of regret; it’s a statement that the speaker is sorry. And so, the most basic of all apologies is simply: I’m sorry. But, there are lots of variations and lots of differences of opinion.
In literature, an apology is an autobiographical work justifying the author’s beliefs or behaviors. Perhaps the most famous of all apologies is Socrates Apologia in which the great Greek philosopher (and teacher of Plato) defends (though unsuccessfully) his beliefs against charges of impiety against the gods. Socrates’ Apologia is actually Plato’s version of Socrates’ speech of defense. Some definitions include the idea that an apology acknowledges some wrongdoing to another on the part of the person making the apology, for example, I’m sorry I used your credit card without asking you. But, you might also apologize to yourself where you are both the one wronged and the one who wronged, for example, I’m sorry I didn’t study for that exam.
Other definitions do not include an admission of wrongdoing as an integral part of the apology and so you might apologize without having done anything wrong, as in, for example, I’m sorry for bringing this up right now but we have to deal with these rumors before they spread even further. In popular usage, an admission of wrongdoing is usually considered a part of the apology, sometimes acknowledged explicitly (I’m sorry I lied) and sometimes acknowledged 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) 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, say, your relationship, an apology will help you repair the relationship with your partner and perhaps reduce the level of conflict. At the same time, 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.
Some Dos and Don’ts for Effective Apologies An effective apology, like any effective message, must be crafted for the specific situation. 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 don’ts can be offered for apologizing effectively:
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. Or, to take a recent example: In a response to the government’s inept handling of Hurricane Katrina, Hillary Clinton said she apologized but then turned it into a criticism of others—I apologize, and I am embarrassed that our government so mistreated our fellow citizens….” Here there is no acknowledgement of personal responsibility but rather a shifting of responsibility to others.
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. Recently, Eliot Spitzer, former Governor of New York, apologized for a series of wrongdoings but never really mentioned what they were. Of course, he was protecting himself and so kept his “apology” overly general. It was, as a result, both unsatisfactory and unacceptable to most people. Similarly, the apology of former Attorney General Albert Gonzales—“mistakes were made here”—wasn’t really an apology; it was an attempt to deflect any personal responsibility.
4. Do express understanding of how the other person feels and acknowledge the legitimacy of these feelings. 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. It won’t happen again or better and more specific I won’t be late again.
1. Don’t apologize when it isn’t necessary.
2. Don’t justify your behavior by mentioning that everyone does it. 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 or the problems that this may have caused. So the figures arrived a little late; no harm is done.
6. Don’t make excuses. I’m sorry the figures are late but I had so much other work to do. An excuse 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.