What constitutes an apology

The non-apology apology is quite common. Many famous people make them who are not really sorry. But no one seems to have fully articulated what constitutes an actual full apology. This is my attempt. A true full apology is a sign of a truly civilized person—a gentleman or lady apologizes fully. Anything less is insincere, and, frankly, childish.

In short, an apology must have three things: it must acknowledge personal fault, it must convey contrition, and it must contain promise to improve. Furthermore, an apology may contain an explanation, but it must never contain an excuse. It may also contain a plea for forgiveness. An apology must apologize for one’s own faults and behaviors. It is not an apology if it apologizes for someone else’s reactions.

I am sorry I broke you favorite mug. I know you really liked that mug and I wish I had been more careful with it. I promise that I will be more careful with your things in the future.

Here the apologizer acknowledges that he is responsible for breaking the mug. He acknowledges and expresses regret that his actions distressed someone else. Finally, he promises to not let it happen again. A true full apology.

I am sorry I made sexist remarks in such a public place. I understand that sexism can make women feel marginalized and I really regret that my comments hurt people. I will do my best to make sure that I bite my tongue next time sexist comments occur to me.

The apologizer acknowledges that his remarks were sexist and they were made in an inappropriate forum. He acknowledges that he understands why no one should make sexist remarks and that he is truly remorseful about the hurt feelings his comments caused. There is also a promise not to do it again.

The Holy Father is very sorry that some passages of his speech may have sounded offensive to the sensibilities of Muslim believers

What’s wrong with this? The pope did not acknowledge that he had done anything wrong. The pope did not express regret and sympathy with what he did wrong, only that others reacted in a way he didn’t expect. The pope did not indicate that he would attempt to avoid offending Muslims in the future. Here’s what a civilized apology would have looked like:

The Holy Father is very sorry for making offensive comments about Muslims. Though it was not his intention to offend, it is clear the speech was poorly written and the Holy Father may have inadvertently conveyed some conceptions he has about Islam in a hurtful way. Although the Holy Father is not a Muslim and does not share the belief system of Islam, he understands that mature participation in the global religious community requires being more diplomatic in the criticism of other religions, and will endeavor to do so in the future

I found this great little post which explains why you should never condition your contrition on someone else’s feelings:

One thing many people say, which you should NEVER say, is, “If I offended you, I apologize.” That is the worst sort of fake apology: It’s like stealing someone’s wallet, and saying, “I’m sorry if you felt you were inconvenienced.” When you say “If I offended you, I apologize,” you’re implying that the other person is to blame-for being so over-sensitive as to be offended, or so selfish as to demand an apology. You’re making it clear that you’re not sorry for anything YOU did; you just resent the other person’s reaction.

The whole article by Joseph Dobrian is really quite good. You should read it.

Robert Lane Green from The Economist wrote a great commentary about Charlie Sheen’s non-apology apology for calling Chuck Lorre “Chaim Levine”: “If they feel upset about something that was misinterpreted, I feel terrible about that.”

This isn’t a half-hearted apology, but a quadruple non-apology.

  1. No “if” clause, Mr Sheen, and especially no “if they feel upset”. What you said doesn’t mean “I’m sorry”, because you’re conditioning your contrition on someone else’s reaction. Don’t do that.
  2. No “something that was misinterpreted”. This is the agent-free passive that doesn’t say who did the misinterpreting. “Some feelings are bruised out there. Who’s to blame? Beats me.” If you’re confused, you’re not apologising.
  3. But it seems you’re not confused about who’s to blame. The verb “misinterpret” itself points the finger at the people who are upset. This one word ruins an entire apology.
  4. And finally, skip “I feel terrible about that.” When you offend people, it’s not about your feelings. Sure, “I feel terrible” can express contrition, but it’s also ambiguous, allowing the possible inference “I feel terrible that I got caught.”

So, in conclusion, at the minimum, an apology should contain:

  • Acknowledgement of personal fault
  • Contrition and remorse
  • Promise to improve or at least not do it again

Any less, and it’s a non-apology apology. That is, it is unworthy of acceptance as not a real apology, and the apologizer is not owed any forgiveness for making it.

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One Response to What constitutes an apology

  1. I would even go as far as saying that the non-apologetic apologies are a thinly veiled opportunity to squeeze in one more insult of the aggrieved party. In other words, they aren’t apologies at all, but rather, another turn of the knife, well, you know what I mean.

    Disclaimer: I found my way here from EL&U. I am Feral Oink!
    or rather

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