I’ve been thinking a lot about apologies and their connection to values, given what’s been going on throughout society. Business and government scandals prompt epic quasi apologies. The rape at Stanford University and the response from a young man who refuses to take responsibility for his actions is pathetic. And there’s the Presidential campaign. Good grief.
But even without the headlines, day-to-day events trigger countless interactions that warrant apologies. I’m convinced that too many people honestly don’t know what an authentic apology sounds and feels like – and the damage done by non-apologies dressed up to sound like apologies.
What is an apology? It’s a statement that says: This is what I did; I know it caused you harm, stress, loss, injury, etc. etc. etc.; I am truly sorry for my actions – whatever it is that I did by commission or omission. I did it. I own it. Unconditionally.
The purpose of an apology is to acknowledge that you harmed someone, in some way, that you are accepting unconditional, personal responsibility for your part and that you are willing to be held accountable. Your reasons, intentions, or mitigating circumstances have no bearing whatsoever.
Why offer one? On a personal level, and contrary to what most politicians believe, an apology is a sign of strength. Apologizing might make you vulnerable and that too is a sign of strength. It says (through your behavior) that you are strong enough to treat others with respect and dignity. It makes you trustworthy.
Given and received with sincerity, apologies strengthen relationships. Where those relationships go after an apology depends on many factors, and no two are exactly alike. But wherever they go, they will go under the best possible circumstances.
When is an apology not an apology? Any apology that contains the word “if,” is not an apology. For example: “I’m sorry if I said something that hurt or offended you. That was not my intention.” What that statement actually says is: If you took something I said the wrong way, that’s really on you. I didn’t mean it to have the effect it had and just because you’re not smart enough to read my mind, that’s not my problem.
If I’m the recipient of that apology, my unexpressed feeling is likely to be something akin to: “Fuck you.”
Here’s an example of a real apology. “I’m sorry I hurt you.” It doesn’t matter to the person who was hurt how they misinterpreted anything or what your intent was. You hurt them. Say you’re sorry for what you did – without conditions. If you can’t or won’t do that, then consider running for public office. If you won’t ever apologize at all, for anything, then think about running for President.