APOLOGY (PART 2) Sally Campbell
When is it not a good idea to apologize?
It’s not a good idea to apologize when you don’t mean it. When you caused no offense, such as when someone bumps into you, and you say “sorry”, this is simply a verbal habit. In our household, we call this the “British Sorry”. It’s more about politeness than anything else. If you did participate in offending someone, but you feel the other is equally or more “to blame”, or perhaps you haven’t really thought it through, your apology may ring false. We need to be ready to stand “one down” to the person we’ve offended when we apologize; reaching this mindset can take some time of internal reckoning. Our habitual defense mechanisms may jump up first and try to reassure us it’s not really our fault or our problem. More often, both sides bear responsibility for what happened; it’s our challenge to specifically identify our part, name it and say we’re sorry, but only if we honestly are. It is not necessary to identify how the other helped create the mess we’re in, despite the temptation!
What’s wrong with demanding an apology?
As a mediator, I often heard: “You owe me an apology” from one side when in actuality, both parties felt they had been wronged in some way. A demand for an apology is like unilaterally telling another what gift you want to be given; it takes the offering, the generosity of spirit, out of it. A demand can create defensiveness and more distance. It can get you a false apology which is why children find it so offensive; they feel the hypocrisy of it.
Why does the person hold a grudge even after I’ve said that I’m sorry?
Calling it “holding a grudge” is judging and blaming the other for not immediately accepting our apology and getting on with it. Our western culture is (inter-personally) conflict-averse: we want to erase the wrong, start with a fresh slate, and carry on as if the offense didn’t happen. It did. Language and actions that we release into the world don’t get erased despite later remorse. This is called “the world of what is” (Ken Cloke). I learned by experience that it’s never ever too late to make amends for a wrong. I offended a boy in second grade by tripping him as he was making his way to the front of the class to talk about his trip to California. I was no doubt jealous, but that was no excuse. What a mean-spirited thing to do! I have no recollection of the event, but he told my husband of it at a high school reunion. So, about 60 years after the fact, I found his number, called him up and apologized; we had a great discussion. It cleared some psychic air, and he kindly forgave me.
Aaron Lazare makes clear in his book On Apology that really, apologizing is only the beginning of righting a wrong. It is not the end point. This idea has been helpful in our family. Questions such as: “What do I need to understand about this that I’m not getting?” “What would make you feel better about this?” “What else can you tell me about how this impacted you?” or “I can’t erase what happened, but what can I do about repair?” can help open a dialogue to an honest examination of unfinished business. We need to remember our habitual rush to fix things, and listen for the deeper rhythms of heartful communication. This is humbling work and can be hard. It teaches patience and models respect. Closure generally occurs when the
aggrieved person considers the matter resolved and is ready to forgive. Forgiveness is a whole other topic, and also something we can’t demand.
Does apologizing mean you are guilty of an offense?
BC enacted legislation on apology following that of California, essentially answering this question with a “no”. (Apologizing does not make you legally liable for an offense.) They did it because the offering of a genuine apology helps settle conflicts. Withholding that expression of remorse and responsibility creates more problems for the legal system.
Is the first one to apologize showing weakness?
A genuine apology models willingness to be vulnerable and accountable. It shows a person you care. It takes self-awareness, maturity and a certain amount of courage (heart) to humble yourself and say you’re sorry, how you were wrong, what you regret, what you have learned, and what you would like to do differently next time. And to listen to the one who’s been hurt and hear the impacts. That person, in my experience, will often offer up a recognition of their part in the misunderstanding, and you may even receive an apology back. These kinds of tough conversations deepen relationship by recognizing our shared and flawed humanity. Way back in the day, the pop culture movie “Love Story” featured a line: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Actually, the exact reverse is true.
(Next time: Forgiveness)