Nephew: I have to give a written apology to the school’s principal. Any tips, please?
Uncle: What did you do?
Nephew: It was the new kids’ first day in high school, and I filled my mouth with custard.
Nephew: My mates said I had leprosy.
Nephew: My mouth exploded and the new kids leapt like rabbits.
Uncle: For goodness sake! And that’s not even a symptom!
Nephew: The principal said I also have to water the school’s gardens after school, for a month. If she insists on punishing me, why is she also insisting on receiving an apology? Is she playing a power game?
Uncle: She wants an apology from you for two reasons. First, when you fully acknowledge what you did was wrong you will increase the likelihood that you won’t do something stupid like that again. That’s important, because when someone is wronged they need to feel safe in the knowledge the incident won’t be repeated.
Nephew: I can’t guarantee that. What’s the other reason for giving an apology? Oh, I remember. It’s about being vulnerable.
Uncle: Yes. When you give an apology, you benefit.
Nephew: Tell me again. How do I benefit?
Uncle: Many of us don’t give apologies because we are afraid of losing face and being seen as weak.; we are frightened we won’t be taken seriously from then on. But the true fear, in the shadows of our mind, is of disconnection.
Nephew: That old chestnut.
Uncle: So, instead of apologising, many of us become defensive and try to justify our position.
Nephew: I still can’t see the benefit.
Uncle: Although we may fear disconnection by giving an apology, the opposite happens. A genuine apology is a sign of strength and maturity. It’s a sign we are taking responsibility for what happened. So, instead of being perceived as weak, our credibility soars. Paradoxicallly, we begin to gain the trust of others, and strengthen our connection with them.
Nephew: I can’t see my credibility soaring any time soon.
Uncle: Further, by acknowledging our faults – to yourself and to others – you lance the pus ball of shame within you, and experience relief. Shame has done its job. It can now return to the Dark Forest.
Nephew: That place still gives me creeps. But I’m not feeling shame. The prank was a hoot.
Uncle: (Sigh) And, having apologised, you discover again you can cope with the embarrassment. That’s a big confidence booster, and a key to resilience.
Nephew: I think we’re on different pages here. I’m giving an apology because I have to, not because I actually mean it.
Uncle: Oh. Well, then you won’t benefit.
Nephew: So, will you help me write this apology, please?
Uncle: I suppose we can at least go through the motions of giving a genuine, considered apology.
Nephew: Do I write, ‘I’m sorry I let the little children think I had leprosy’?
Uncle: Step one: . . .
Nephew: Wait a minute. How many steps are there?!
Uncle: Schools don’t seem to teach their students how to give a considered apology, although it’s an important skill to have.
Nephew: Write a letter to the Education Department. They’ll be pleased to hear your point of view.
Uncle: Step one: begin with the words, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I apologise’. These are important words. They establish a tone of respect and concern.
Nephew: Step two?
Uncle: Step two: Confess. Explain precisely what you did. Don’t explain away your actions. Don’t justify them. Don’t excuse yourself by saying you were only partly responsible. Simply explain what you did.
Nephew: But what if I was only partly responsible?
Uncle: The part other people play is irrelevant to your apology. Apologise for the part you played and don’t undermine it by mentioning the part someone else played. An apology needs to be uncontaminated.
Nephew: Doesn’t seem fair.
Uncle: Go ahead. Explain precisely what you did wrong.
Nephew: ‘I filled my mouth with custard.’
Nephew: ‘I pretended it was leprosy pus and sprayed the new kids with it, to give them a fright.’
Uncle: See, it doesn’t seem so funny now that you have said it out loud, does it?
Nephew: Keep going.
Uncle: Step three: indicate you understand the consequences of your actions.
Nephew: ‘I understand that I scared the little children witless and gave them a poor first impression of their new high school.’
Nephew: ‘. . . And I understand that the children’s parents were upset and angry.’
Nephew: ‘. . . And I understand that you had to waste your time dealing with traumatised children bawling in the hallways, and with angry parents ringing you up.’
Nephew: ‘Aw gee. . . . And I understand I have custard on my shirt, tie and pants, and that doesn’t meet the high dress standards the school expects.’
Uncle: Good work. You need to be thorough. You need to indicate that you understand the full ramifications.
Nephew: Step four?
Uncle: Step four. Apologise for all that.
Nephew: ‘I apologise for all that. I apologise for being so inconsiderate and thoughtless.’
Uncle: ‘And for being the source of considerable distress.’
Nephew: ‘And for being the source of considerable distress.’
Uncle: Step five: explain what you will be doing to ensure it does not happen again.
Nephew: ‘. . . I won’t be buying custard for a while.’
Uncle: Try again.
Nephew: ‘. . . From now on, when I think of doing a prank like this I will consider the harm it could cause. Then I’ll refrain.’
Uncle: Yes. In general, when you search for ways to prevent the problem from occurring again, you become more competent in your own daily life. You become proficient in seeing potential problems, and in avoiding them.
Nephew: You say, ‘in general’?
Uncle: In this instance, all you can do to ensure it does not happen again is to try to not be a complete idiot.
Nephew: But I’m not a complete idiot. I had my appendix out when I was ten.
Uncle: What? For goodness sake. Step six: ask the recipient, ‘How can I make amends? What can I do to improve the situation?’
Nephew: ‘I will build a time machine and ensure this appalling incident never happened.’
Uncle: Try again.
Nephew: But I don’t want to ask how I can make amends. The principal might ask me to write letters to the children’s parents, too.
Uncle: A person’s request does need to be reasonable. Some people might try to take advantage of your superb apology because they think you have relinquished your power. You have not. On the contrary, by taking responsibility for the incident you have empowered yourself. Use that power to negotiate a fair resolution. However . . .
Nephew: Go on.
Uncle: However, in this instance I’m sure your principal’s requests will be reasonable. Do what you’re told.
Uncle: Step seven: After giving a face-to-face apology, change the subject, or leave. Don’t start expressing your side of the story. Don’t add anything that might negate or diminish your apology.
Nephew: Hang on! When do I get forgiven?
Uncle: Whether you are forgiven or not is none of your business. The person receving your apology is aware of the concept and can make that decision without your prompting. And, they don’t need to tell you what they decide.
Nephew: But I need to know!
Uncle: You don’t need to know. The purpose of an apology is to take responsibility for what you have done, not to earn the other person’s forgiveness.
Nephew: That’s not fair! If I go to the trouble of writing a tedious apology I want to know if I’ve been forgiven!
Uncle: The apology is for their benefit, not yours. It’s not about you.
Nephew: Can’t I at least ask her?
Uncle: No. As I say, it’s none of your business. But I can see that doesn’t matter to you, so if you do feel compelled to ask your principal for forgiveness, declare that you would like it, but don’t wait for a response. Don’t wait for the words, ‘Yes, I forgive you.’ That’s just a power game.
Nephew: You’re a cheery bloke, aren’t you?
Uncle: That’s me.
Nephew: Do I benefit in any way?
Uncle: You do. Every time you apologise you confront your own fallibility, and are reminded that you are not diminished by it.
Nephew: Great. How wonderful.
Uncle: Plus, by being in the habit of taking full responsibility for your behaviour, you will become more competent and more self-assured, and bolder. And make better decisions in life.
Nephew: Yahoo. What if the principal still isn’t happy?
Uncle: If you have been sincere with your apology and will be ensuring the incident does not happen again, and if you have done your best to rectify the problem, then you are on the right path and that’s good enough. There is nothing more you can do. Aim to let the incident go. Don’t punish yourself, though in this instance there seems to be no danger of that.
Nephew: You’re right there. You should have seen the kids’ faces. Tell me: why do I need to write the apology?
Uncle: Beause she has asked you to write one.
Nephew: Yes, but . . .
Uncle: She’ll have her reasons. Besides, sometimes it’s a good idea to give a written apology: it can avoid awkward moments, and it can help you get your thoughts in order and express them in a clear and consise manner.
Nephew: Some people apologise all the time. It ends up not meaning anything.
Uncle: Good point. Don’t over-apologise. Especially avoid the habitual ‘sorry’ some people murmur repeatedly.
Nephew: Let’s say I do something and some dill expects me to apologise, but I don’t think I should. What happens then?
Uncle: Go over the incident to ensure you aren’t chickening out. Then, if you still believe you should not apologise, don’t. If you like, politely explain your reasons. But I suggest you first talk the matter over with a friend to get their perspective.
Nephew: What if someone wrongs me? Can I demand an apology?
Uncle: I wouldn’t. And why would you want to? Is it to exercise power over the person because you are in the right? If so, forget it.
Nephew: They might think twice about doing it again. And I might appreciate their remorse.
Uncle: You can ask for an apology, but remember, most people aren’t practised in giving one. Quality apologies are rare, so you might end up disappointed. Plus, the person might simply refuse. I suggest you don’t ask for an apology unless you are sure you can handle not getting one.
Nephew: And I guess that if I have to ask for an apology, how genuine would it be?
Uncle: That’s right. A better idea is to make sure the person knows they have wronged you. ‘You are unacceptably late and I am inconvenienced‘, or ‘Your remark was cruel.‘ If you can state your case clearly and comfortably, you are sticking up for yourself and you will feel better.
Nephew: And if they don’t then apologise?
Uncle: It doesn’t matter. You weren’t seeking an apology; your aim was to stand up for yourself. If you succeeded in that, that is a huge reward and better than any apology you could have received. Further, you have learned something about the person for future reference: how they’re prepared to treat you.
Nephew: I guess some people think they are so superior they don’t need to give an apology. An apology is beneath them.
Uncle: Lost souls, out of touch with the real world. So yes, be careful asking for an apology because you might be disappointed. Aim instead to stick up for yourself. Then leave it at that.
Nephew: Let’s say I throw a cricket ball at the stumps and accidentally send someone home with a broken toe. Do I have to give a full apology and intend to change my ways?
Uncle: We don’t need to make a full apology when our crime is unintentional, unless it’s by negligence. When we say sorry in such an instance we are not apologising for what we did, we are expressing concern. It’s a different meaning of the word ‘sorry’.
Nephew: So, Mandy tells me her father has just died. If I had murdered him I give a full apology; if I didn’t kill him I can say sorry to express my concern?
Uncle: Er, yes.
‘I apologise.’ (The key word.)
‘I negligently let my dog steal your dinner.’ (Confess the crime.)
‘I realise you are hungry, and angry.’ (Acknowledge the consequences)
‘I apologise for not being careful with my dog.’ (Take responsibility.)
‘I will from now on ensure the dog is outside when we eat.’ (Explain your preventative steps.)
‘In what way can I make amends? May I cook your dinner?’ (Rectify the situation.)
How to give a lousy apology.
‘I’m sorry for what I did, but I’ve had a hard day.’ Nuh. That’s not taking responsibility. Avoid the word ‘but’ and don’t give excuses. Try instead:
‘I’m sorry for what I did.’ Good. Then think of ways to prevent a hard day from having such an influence over you in the future.
‘I’m sorry for what I did. I didn’t mean to upset you.’ Wrong. You’re implying the recipient is thin-skinned, and that you really shouldn’t be apologising for something so minor.
‘I’m sorry for what I did. I regret what I did and apologise for it.’ Good. That’s more honest.
‘I’m sorry for what I did. I’ll try to ensure it doesn’t happen again.’ Wrong. Do more than try.
‘I’m sorry for what I did. I will ensure it doesn’t happen again.’ Good. And, ensure it doesn’t.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t realise it meant so much to you.’ That’s not an apology, that’s a sneer.
‘I’m sorry. That was important to you and I was grossly inconsiderate. I’ll be more considerate in the future.’ That’s better.
‘I’m sorry, but all I said was . . .’ No! No buts, and don’t undermine your apology by trivialising the incident. If you don’t think your behaviour is worth an apology, don’t be disingenuous by giving one.
‘We are closed for renovations. We apologise for the inconvenience.’ Wrong. Keep your apologies for when you’ve done something wrong. An honest and non-patronising statement might be, ‘We are closed for renovations’.
‘I’m sorry for what I did. I thought you had a sense of humour.’ That’s not an apology, that’s an insult. And, you’re blaming the person for not seeing the incident in the same way you saw it.
‘I’m sorry. I thought you might find it funny.’ Wrong. You are blaming the other person for not finding it funny. Try: ‘I was wrong and I’m sorry. I can see you were hurt and I regret it.’
‘I’m sorry if you’re offended,’ and ‘I’m sorry you took it the wrong way’ and ‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’ No. In each sentence you are not apologising for your actions, you’re simply regretting the way they interpreted it. You’re suggesting it’s their fault they’re offended.
‘I owe you an apology.’ Wrong, unless you immediately follow with the apology itself. Telling someone you owe them $20 is not the same as giving them the $20. Try: ‘I apologise for —’
‘I wish to apologise for —’ Wrong. Wishing you were giving someone $20 is not the same as giving them $20. Try: ‘I apologise for —’
‘I’m sorry, alright!!’ Obviously, no. That’s not an apology. That’s a demand to back off.
Here is a dissection of a real, but poor, apology.
I present it not to criticise the giver of the apology. He remains unnamed and I hope unrecognised. I don’t even know if his apology was warranted because I don’t know the facts of the matter. You and I are examining this apology only because it’s a good example of a poor one.
‘I love the XX club. It’s been a part of my life since I was born. It was part of my father’s life, it was part of my grandfather’s life.
And I am so sorry for anything that’s happened or that’s been done wrong to our players or been done wrong to our football club.
I and we would never do anything intentionally to harm this club or to harm the game . . . that has given me so much and given so many people so much.’
Let’s examine his words.
‘I love the club. It’s been a part of my life since I was born. It was part of my father’s life, it was part of my grandfather’s life.’
He is saying, ‘Please understand that I meant no wrong. I hope you will go easy on me.’ That’s acceptable.
‘And I am so sorry for —’
He apologises, but to whom? To no one. It’s as though he feels obligated to fling out an apology, and does so, without directing it to the people who might actually deserve it. We can feed someone either by placing the food in front of them, or by flinging the food onto the floor and letting someone find it. Which is the more sincere, the more respectful? Try instead: ‘I apologise to A, B and C.’ That’s respectful, and it’s taking responsibility.
He could add something like: ‘I realise this affects everyone in the club, including the supporters, and I apologise to them.’
‘I am so sorry for — (what has) been done wrong to our players —’
He appears to be apologising for what other people have done wrong. No one can apologise for what someone else has done without being disingenuous and patronising. Try instead (depending on the truth of the matter):
‘I will not apologise for the actions of others. However, I deeply regret that I did not adequately oversee . . . and I apologise for not doing so.’
Or, ‘I knew what other people were doing and I knew it was wrong. I apologise for condoning their actions —’
Or, ‘I’m sorry for what I did wrong to our players.’
Or, ‘I cannot apologise because I have done nothing wrong.’
Now let’s look at his whole sentence: ‘And I am so sorry for anything that’s happened or that’s been done wrong to our players or been done wrong to our club.’
‘anything that’s happened —’ Could he get any vaguer?
‘anything that’s been done wrong —’ He uses the word ‘anything’ rather than ‘everything’, putting in doubt that there even has been a wrong. It’s as though he doesn’t know what has been done wrong, but is apologising for it anyway. He’s like a child admitting to wrongs he doesn’t understand, just to get the fuss over and done with and to keep people happy. He appears hapless, not contrite.
If his apology were sound he might say something like, ‘I believe I have done nothing wrong and I apologise for nothing. However, I am distressed with how much suffering there has been in the club and I recognise that many people believe I am at least partly responsible for it. I will be doing everything I can to ensure — ’
Or, ‘I am sorry to A, B and C for —’ (citing specifically what he did wrong, one item after the other.)
‘I and we would never do anything intentionally to harm this club or to harm the game . . . that has given me so much and given so many people so much.’
He would not seriously believe that we would think he was intentionally harming the club or the game, so why would he say that? He says it because he wants to make himself look innocent, and to avoid taking responsibility. He could say something like (depending on the truth of the matter):
‘I and we have harmed this club and the game. On behalf of myself and (the others) I apologise for doing so.’
Or, ‘With our negligence, I and we have harmed this club and the game. On behalf of myself and —’
Or, ‘I and we would never do anything intentionally to harm this club or to harm the game, which is why I insist that we are innocent— .’
When I saw him give the apology I got the feeling he was weary of the accusations, and was throwing apologies at us to get us off his back. His distress was sincere, but his apologies didn’t seem to be.
Perhaps he was genuinely remorseful. If so, he could work on his ability to give apologies.
If he believes (perhaps rightly) that he did not owe an apology, it might explain why he gave such a poor one.
An addendum: After all I have said, his apology might be perfect if we take into account the legal ramifications. I’m not criticising the man for not giving a better apology, I’m using his apology as an example of what not to do. In the legal world it can be a different matter, but that’s not our concern here.