The Elements of an Apology

Apparently, in this day and age, people have forgotten how to properly apologize for their misdeeds. We now live in an era where Ego and Hubris have reached the point that offense is not an objective thing, but in the eye of the offended, who CLEARLY must be delusional, since we can all do no wrong. Well, others can do wrong, and when they do, they MUST be compelled to make an apology. But since they are subject to this same attitude, they only mouth the words that will get other people off their backs.

This leads to a lot of shitty non-apologies that never accomplish what a public apology is meant to do, which is serve as a form of social correction for doing wrong.

There are four things that an apology should contain.

First, and most commonly absent is an admission of responsibility. Most non-apologies entirely omit the role of the offender, and entirely put the burden of the offense on the offended. Sometimes they barely admit the existence of the offended. You can pick this out easily by the presence of the word “If”.

For example, compare these two apologies:

“I’m sorry you got hurt.”
“I’m sorry I hurt you.”

The first, you will note, is not actually an apology. The offender doesn’t even appear as the actor of the verb hurt. There is no responsibility taken. The second is an apology of a most basic sort.

The “If” implies a lot that is left unsaid. So let’s try to make it explicit.

“I’m sorry if anyone got hurt.”
(But if nobody got hurt, then I’m not sorry at all, as I think I did nothing wrong).

“I’m sorry if anyone feels offended.”
(You feeling offended is regrettable. I was hoping you’d be driven to suicide by my cutting characterization of you.) or (You FEEL offended, and your feelings don’t really count. You weren’t actually offended, because I did nothing wrong in calling your entire bloodline retarded mongoloids. But if any mentally differently-abled or Downs Syndrome sufferers are out there, obviously I wasn’t referring to you. Just using your stereotype as an insult. I’m sure you don’t mind, it was entirely justified.)

The next thing an apology should include is a recognition that the behavior being apologized for is wrong.

“I realize now that shooting a gun randomly into the air is wrong, whether anyone gets hurt or not is immaterial.”

Excuses and rationalizations have no place in an apology.

“But everybody else was doing it. I thought it would be a harmless prank. It really shouldn’t matter to anyone. Why is everyone acting all serious?”

Third, It should include a promise to never engage in the bad behavior again.

“It was a stupid thing to do, and I will never do anything like that again.”

And finally, optionally, it should include a statement of what measures will be taken to prevent a repetition of the offense.

“And just to make sure of it, I am giving up the business of Billy-Bob the Sixgun Birthday Clown”

So, can you think of any recent apologies you’ve heard that don’t contain even one of these essential elements?

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17 thoughts on “The Elements of an Apology

  1. I think an apology can legitimately take the form, “I’m sorry if I offended you”, where one is unsure whether they’ve actually caused offence. It think it can be a precursor to a more specific apology wherein one can take the blame for causing the offence. Otherwise, I pretty much agree.

        • I think it also depends on the context. If the ‘If’ is there to expression confusion it serves a purpose. If it’s a weasel word then it doesn’t. Things I’ve seen play out (with near identical phrasing to each other.)

          The apology:
          “I am sorry I upset you, if I offended you, I’m also very sorry. What did I say that upset you?”

          The responses (different people different circumstances):
          “No, I am not offended. It is simply the anniversary of my mother’s death and that topic is very difficult for me to approach today.”

          “That’s not something we talk about in public here, only private.” (Culture clash.)

          The ‘if’ above is indicative of ‘Ok, I know I stuck my foot in it somewhere but I’m not sure if it was offense or something else.’

  2. One thing I was considering editing this to add is the optional element of making a statement about how you are going to redress any harm you have done. It’s optional because not everything CAN be fixed, but say, “And I will personally pay for Billy’s surgery” would be a good example for my example.

    • It depends on the offense, but “how do I make it right?” is an essential part of an apology where correctable wrong has occurred. If I wreck a friend’s car, it is on me to see it repaired (or replaced, if it was totaled). The compensation should be congruent with the offense.

      Things get more complicated when the offense isn’t something physical- reputation, honor, trust, and so on. Parsing her “apology,” she’s not ashamed in the least of what she -said,- but is going to apologize for the -hurt- folks felt as a result of her comments.

      That’s a distinction that stands out to me. Hurt feelings are one thing. Lies like “extreme right wing to neo-nazi” are another. “I apologize” was a good start. No argument from me there, it was the right thing to say. But when you precede it with “I painted with too broad a brush” (meaning those words were true for *some* of your targets, as commenters on Tom Daugherty’s post said?) then follow it with “to those who were hurt by my comments” (limiting your apology to only those who were “hurt,” not those whose lives and livelihoods you maligned), it loses much of the substance of what makes an apology an apology.

      I respect the fact that she did, in fact, say the words “I apologize.” That’s a start. If she wants to clarify that, and admit actual wrongdoing, that will garner even more respect. As far as Tor in general, Moshe’s latest was rather the wrong approach for them.

      The best thing they can do right now as a company, all of them, is try to be as respectable and apolitical as humanly possible. That means no “bad puppies, EVUL VOX” comments, in fact, no further mention of anything political at all. Push the “we are professionals” angle, and live that statement. Treat those they have tarred with respect, whether they think we deserve it or not, and clean house- ask their supporters to keep a civil tone on Tor.com, come down hard on trollishness of any stripe. Even if it comes from “our” side.

      Reputation is a brittle thing. It takes a lot to build it up, and very little to shatter it. Yet, for all that, it is so powerful it can build a company from small beginnings to vast resources, given a good product and the integrity to back that up at every turn. I sincerely hope they don’t screw this up, because the future of a great many writers (and the books we readers have yet to read!) still depends on Tor. I may prefer Baen myself, but I’m not blind to what they have done in the industry so far.

      That hope is a fragile thing, too. I truly don’t *expect* much from them. But for their sakes, and all those innocents they may affect, I do indeed hope things settle down over there.

    • That’s the thing, the loss of Face is the POINT of being required to make a public apology. The idea is that being humbled will cause one to be introspective about one’s behavior that led them to this point, and then go forth and sin no more.

      Problem is these days, they just say what they have to to go through the motions, and learn nothing.

    • These are people who do not understand the distinction between Face and Honor. And that there are times when that which causes gains (or often re-gains) of Honor requires a loss of Face. And a willing one.

  3. I think you’ve done a great job of starting the conversation. I like the way others have indicated preferences, but all in a totally collegial way. Where are the malcontents? The trolls? The evil ones?

    Oh, sorry. They’re on the other side, and they will ignore this excellent post because it doesn’t fit into their world view. I think the real power here is McMillan and they will be happy with any publicity about Tor. With the low attention span of most Americans, all they’ll remember is that Tor is this big publisher of good books.

    For what it’s worth, I buy your analysis completely.

    • Well, you did see that File770 pulled this into their daily Sad Puppies roundup, although A brief use of the search function didn’t turn up any comments on it.

  4. For face-to-face apologies that don’t involve physical damages that must be made whole, there are three other elements that, when properly combined in a bottled solution appropriate to the recipient of the apology, help to constitute a proper apology:

    Two parts Carbon, six parts Hydrogen, and one part Oxygen, arranged as C2H5OH.

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