Self-help book and works of popular psychology often instruct us in the art of apologising. Their advice is reflected, in turn, in much online discussion.
Most commonly, we’re advised to give elaborate, self-abasing apologies: apologies that go well beyond acknowledging misjudgement or admitting to wrongdoing. With variations, we are told to elaborate in detail just what we did wrong, describe why it was unacceptable, offer nothing in the way of justification or excuse (though sometimes we’re told we can give an explanation without justifying ourselves), and provide explicit assurances that we will never repeat the behaviour. In summary, we’re told to condemn, criticise and abase ourselves, and to ask humbly for forgiveness.
This might be needed for some betrayals of love or friendship. But for most situations it is very bad advice.
In its most serious mode, the social practice of apologising relates to actions that are later regretted, leading to deep feelings of guilt or shame. With the passage of time, or when we’re brought to focus on what we’ve said or done, we sometimes feel terrible about our own conduct.
To save space, I’ll set aside serious failures resulting from, for example, incompetence (much as these might be interesting in their own right). Let’s consider cases of serious wrongdoing. Here, one person has deliberately harmed or deceived another (or others) in a significant way. In the worst cases, the victim might be someone who legitimately expected the wrongdoer’s goodwill, special concern or even love.
In a situation like this, the victim has every reason to feel profoundly betrayed. Since the wrongdoing was deliberate and significant, it revealed something important and unsavoury about the wrongdoer’s character - what she was psychologically capable of - and especially about her attitude to her victim. In acting as she did, she showed an attitude of disrespect or even malice.
If she aims at reconciliation and seeks forgiveness, the wrongdoer will need to demonstrate that she has undergone something of a psychological transformation. She will need to express heartfelt remorse, show a clear understanding of how she betrayed the victim, and offer especially strong and convincing assurances. She will enter the territory of condemning her own moral character - as it was expressed in the past - and claiming to have changed.
Even the most complete and self-abasing apology might not be enough to regain the victim’s trust and good opinion. The wrongdoer has, after all, revealed by her actions that she was psychologically capable of acting with disrespect or worse. Furthermore, claims to have transformed in moral character are inherently difficult to believe. The victim might understandably be unwilling to restore the relationship to anything like what it previously was.
But most cases are nothing like this. Worthwhile thoughts about apologising in cases of serious wrongdoing can be very bad advice for the range of milder situations that we encounter almost every day.
In most situations, any sense of guilt or shame is greatly attenuated, even to the point where it might - quite properly - not be felt at all. Thus, words like “sorry” are uttered more as matter of politeness and social convention than to express heartfelt remorse.
Think of the following sequence of events (which happened to me a few days ago). I’d alighted from an intercity train, late at night, and was walking along a moderately crowded platform when I stopped - fairly suddenly, no doubt - to check out a vending machine. The middle-aged man walking immediately behind brushed my arm as he stepped past, and we automatically turned to each other to say, “Sorry!” We spontaneously nodded and smiled at each other, raising our hands, palms outward, as if to indicate peaceful intent and absence of weapons … and he then walked on while I concluded that I didn’t really want the junk food on offer in the machine. And that was all.
The entire exchange took only a few seconds, and neither of us had to go through any process of abasement or self-criticism. How, exactly, is this different from cases that seem far more serious?
It is different along many dimensions, and what follows is not intended to be complete. First, no one was hurt (even psychologically). At most, both of us were momentarily startled.
Second, it would be beside the point to castigate either of us in any serious way. Perhaps we could both have been a bit more conscious of what was going on around us, but at most we showed the sort of lapse in attention and concentration that happens to human beings all the time. I had not been aware of his presence behind me; he did not expect me to stop. But people frequently bump into each other in crowds, and no one is seriously blamed: it’s a normal part of life. It would, of course, be quite different if somebody recklessly sprinted through a crowd, shoving aside people who were in his way.
Third, the two people concerned had no previous relationship except, I suppose, as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. There was no relationship of special regard and trust to try to restore. In that sense, we were not exactly seeking reconciliation, although a certain smoothing of the situation was called for. I doubt, however, that this point makes much difference. Even if the man who brushed past me had turned out to be an old friend, no elaborate apology would have been needed.
Small everyday incidents such as this can be surprisingly pleasant encounters. As long as both people act in the expected way - immediately signalling goodwill and peaceful intent - these incidents make us feel better about ourselves and tend to strengthen societal bonds. For a brief moment, each person provides the other with reassurance that whatever happened was not a prelude to any malicious or violent - or otherwise unfriendly or anti-social - course of action. Importantly, each conveys that the other deserves consideration and respect.
Notice how, during these quick exchanges, we often smile or laugh; we express some mutual amusement at the little tangles of social life. In part, we laugh at our own fallibility, and we forgive ourselves and each other for it. We acknowledge that our fallibility is part of being human, and that it does not, in itself, merit condemnation.
And yet, we do say “Oh, sorry!” or use similar words. In context, this is not an admission of serious wrongdoing or guilty thoughts. We are not seeking anything as grand as forgiveness. By using such words, however, we offer clarity and reassurance. We express something like the following: “I made a miscalculation (or had a lapse in concentration, or whatever might be the case); please understand that I bear you no ill will or disrespect; you have nothing to fear from me.”
Often, this is what we really want to know from each other, and this message also has the advantage that it is usually a believable one. By contrast, an assurance by a serious wrongdoer that she will never do such a thing again might strain credulity.
Words of apology are, then, often given without accepting any blameworthiness. Since we are human - not infallible or omniscient beings - we make mistakes, get distracted, have lapses in concentration, and so on. Sometimes, indeed, we take actions that prove not to be optimal, even though they were not contraindicated on the information available to us at the time.
If you’re at all like me, you might very often find yourself apologising for things that you don’t feel especially ashamed of or guilty about. You might also receive such apologies from others.
For example, a salesperson might apologise to you if you have to wait for an unusually long time to be served, even if the delay was caused by something obviously beyond her control. The apology does not indicate an admission of wrongdoing, and it is certainly not an assurance that nothing like this will happen again (it might well!). But it offers respect and reassurance to someone who has been inconvenienced, even unavoidably.
I frequently find myself apologising to someone I’m talking to if I’ve miscommunicated what I was trying to say and thus caused confusion (or perhaps even hurt feelings). Alternatively, I might apologise if I realise that I’ve been interpreting my interlocutor wrongly: I’ve grabbed the wrong end of the verbal pineapple and thereby caused confusion. In either case, however, the miscommunication is not a reason to feel any serious guilt or shame.
For example, if I misinterpret somebody’s words the reason might be genuine ambiguity in what he said. Conversely, if someone misunderstands my words, perhaps he was being uncharitable. Alternatively, it might have been genuinely difficult to formulate the idea I was trying to get across - and in the circumstances perhaps I couldn’t have been expected to do any better.
It might nonetheless be reasonable - and it is somewhat conventional - to waive our possible defences once we realise that we’re at cross purposes in a conversation. It isn’t difficult, and it can become almost instinctive, to say things like “Sorry - I’ll rephrase that” or “Oops, sorry – I see what you mean now.”
The truth of it is, we can almost always express ourselves a bit more clearly and listen a bit more astutely. In acknowledging this on any particular occasion, we are not admitting to serious wrongdoing or a nasty attitude. Our mild words of apology can and should reflect this.
Through minor apologies, we reassure the people we’re dealing with that we view them as worthy of respect. We signal that we don’t hold grudges or assign blame over small things that have gone wrong, and that the people we encounter don’t need to worry about how we regard them or what we might do next. All this helps us get along socially, as human beings must.
A flexible practice
The more we think about the practice of apologising, the more we become aware of how varied, complex and flexible it is.
On some occasions, perhaps you should have taken more care, yet you were not outright malicious or even reckless. Perhaps you were tired or stressed or poorly prepared for a task. In these cases, something more than a brief conventional apology might be in order. All the same, mere failure to take adequate care does not indicate anything especially unsavoury about your moral character. It happens from time to time to almost anyone.
If your carelessness has caused significant harm, you might feel urgent concern for those affected and you might owe them some kind of redress. But depending on the circumstances, it might be overkill if an officious interloper demanded that you humble and condemn yourself. If you did any such thing, it would feel and appear insincere.
Irrespective of any advice from pop psychologists, it often makes sense to accompany an apology with an explanation or excuse. Indeed, explanations or excuses can be better than apologies. Allow me to elaborate.
It is often said that “intent is not magic”, and that phrase does have some point when clear-cut harm has been inflicted on somebody identifiable. In more cases than not, however, it is precisely the wrong way to think about human interaction. Often, what hurts us most about someone else’s conduct is the attitude that it seems to reveal. It might seem to show that the person views us with malice or disrespect. If she is someone we care for, that can be emotionally devastating. We might wonder whether our relationship with her was based all along on an illusion.
But much of the sting is removed if she gives an explanation or excuse that shows she does not, after all, harbour malice or disrespect. She might, in fact, utter conventional words of apology, but the important thing is that she reassure us in some convincing way about how she feels. The point of good explanations is that they really do explain; the point of good excuses is that they really do excuse.
In some cases, we can even apologise for actions that were not our own. For example, you might apologise (as you try to shuffle him out of a party) for the boorish and embarrassing conduct of a friend who has had too much to drink. Similarly, a media organisation might apologise for a defamatory or outrageous remark made by a guest.
Likewise, the leader of a country might apologise formally for something done by her country, even if it happened a long time ago before she was born. This is a fairly well understood public act with a potential to reconcile and heal. It makes intuitive sense because it relies on the idea that political entities have an ongoing existence beyond the lifetimes and participation of their individual citizens.
However, not just any relationship can make an apology coherent. There has to be the right sort of connection between the person giving the apology and somebody else’s behaviour. For example, you can’t sensibly apologise for your friend’s boorish actions on some past occasion when you were not even present.
In some situations, we don’t have a clear idea who may have been inconvenienced or offended by our conduct. Contrary to much advice on the Internet, it makes perfectly good sense in these circumstances to offer contingent apologies such as “We apologise for any inconvenience” or “I am sorry if I upset anyone.”
On some particular occasion, you might think that any upset from your conduct was not reasonable. You might even doubt whether anyone was genuinely upset, as opposed to grandstanding to make a point. Nonetheless, you might also feel concern about any upset that actually was experienced, even unreasonably. If so, a mild and contingent apology might be perfectly in order. It is a socially intuitive way to convey that you are not motivated by malice or disrespect. And again, it signals that whatever you did or said was not the precursor to a more troubling course of conduct.
This leads me to the sensitive topic of weaponised demands for apologies, often followed by equally weaponised complaints about “notpologies”.
Weaponised demands and complaints
As we’ve seen, it’s coherent to apologise even when you are guilty of nothing more than ordinary human fallibility - or sometimes even when your conduct was justifiable. An example of the latter is when you have inconvenienced somebody in order to deal with a crisis.
In other cases, you - or I - might be guilty of something more than ever-present human fallibility. Even then, we might have shown no more than a low degree of negligence that is easily excused. In these cases, we might feel concern if we’ve caused anyone serious harm. Usually, however, feelings of deep guilt or shame will not be fitting. (Very often, in fact, it’s debatable whether we really were careless or merely unlucky: the line can be very blurred, and reasonable people can reach different conclusions.)
In all, the practice of apologising is subtle and complex, and we should enjoy a considerable range of discretion in when and how far we engage in it.
When others demand that we apologise against our own initial judgement, it can be a form of abuse or a political weapon. At the level of personal relationships, demands for apologies can be abusive: a method of punishment and control. At the level of political, social, and cultural debate, the purpose is to humiliate and discredit somebody who is viewed as an opponent or a wrongdoer.
If we force a public apology from someone we cast as a villain, we gain a victory over them and we warn others not to behave similarly. This might have some social value if restricted to people who’ve engaged in genuinely outrageous conduct. However, through public shaming and threats to careers, humiliating apologies can be forced from people who have done little - or arguably nothing - wrong.
As we’ve seen, elaborate self-criticism and self-abasement might be appropriate sometimes. They might be called for when apologising in private to a loved one who has been betrayed in some way. But when somebody is forced through this process in public - perhaps because of her honestly stated opinion on a matter of legitimate controversy, or perhaps for the phrasing of an unrehearsed remark - it is a cruel, unnecessary, indecent spectacle.
To be clear, somebody who is pressured to apologise might, indeed, feel concern at having offended others. She might willingly offer some clarification and some mild words of apology. The latter might, for example, be along the lines of, “I’m sorry if anyone was offended.” In the circumstances, this response provides clarification of intent, reassurance, and an expression of goodwill. Once a shaming campaign begins, however, it won’t get anyone off the public relations hook.
Whatever mob is pressuring and shaming her will inevitably condemn her (quite reasonable) response as a mere “notpology” and apply further pressure. In this parlance, appropriately limited and contingent apologies are referred to as “notpologies” by zealots who hope to humiliate and discredit their real or imagined enemies.
When demands and complaints are made in this weaponised manner, we have a powerful reason to resist them. Each time someone gives in to a mob of zealots, and offers public self-criticism and a humiliating public apology, it encourages the mob to find new victims. Don’t give such mobs positive feedback.
Your best guide?
My subheading to this article, “Your Best Guide on the Internet”, is lighthearted but on point. As I’ve emphasised, the practice of apologising is complex. We often have to make subtle, discriminating decisions about when and how to engage in it. By contrast, most advice on the Internet is misleading in suggesting that there is a single formula that we need to learn.
Fortunately, our intuitions are usually well honed by experience during our formative years, and most of us make reasonable judgements more often than not, even on the spur of the moment. We might not always be aware of it consciously, but we sense in our everyday practices that apologies can take many forms to suit a myriad of circumstances.
None of this is intended to suggest that I always get it right in my own life! Perhaps no one does; in any event, I am not holding myself out as a role model. I have sometimes made mistakes in this area, even quite serious ones, usually out of anger or pride or self-righteousness. If I have any advice to give beyond the most obvious, it’s to try to avoid those feelings - especially in combination. It’s wise to put them aside, if we can, and in cases of doubt it’s often best to give some sort of apology even if it goes against our grain.
The ability to apologise freely, without embarrassment, should be easier if we recognise how often our mistakes come from ordinary human limitations for which we should feel no particular guilt or shame. Combined with this, most apologies do not relate to serious wrongdoing, disrespectful attitudes to others, or defects of character.
Everyday apologies usually have rather conventional and pragmatic functions: to express regret (but not necessarily culpability) for inconvenience, confusion or hurt; to assure others that we respect them and recognise their interests, and that our intentions are not hostile; and to indicate that others have nothing to fear from us going forward.
In a sense, none of this is new. I’m telling readers what they already know, but the opposite of what they are too often told. I’ve set out in an explicit way some of the complexity that we are all aware of if we’re not confused by pop psychology or a dubious ideology.
Once again: it is often worth apologising (albeit mildly) even when we’ve done nothing wrong; apologies are often quite legitimately accompanied by explanations or excuses; most apologies do not have to be lengthy or especially self-critical or self-abasing. In some situations, much-maligned “notpologies” might be all that is needed.
This complexity should be familiar, once we think about it clearly and for ourselves.
For each of us, as individuals, the social practice of apologising gives many options to match with the ever-changing situations we encounter in our lives. We can think of them as tools in our social kit. Exactly how we use them is up to us.