November 17, 2011

Apology Rules

Some people (ahem) can't stand it when someone is mad at them. They apologize repeatedly--calling and emailing to say how sorry they are and to see if the other person is still mad.

Is this effective? Not usually. The wronged party might issue forgiveness eventually, but it's mostly just to get the apologizing to stop. It's often an unsatisfactory resolution for both parties, leaving one annoyed and the other emotionally exhausted.

The last time this happened, I started thinking about some ground rules for apologies. Some readings on assertiveness and communication skills helped me identify two rules that can help you (and me) apologize appropriately, while keeping a level head.

1) Figure out what you did wrong and take responsibility for it. This rule has two steps and is particularly important when we make a mistake that initiates a chain of unfortunate events. Example: your friend confides in you that he's dating someone new, but hasn't yet told his recent ex. You can't resist sharing this news with your work friend, who knows both parties. Unexpectedly, your work friend declares that your friend's ex has "the right to know" and calls her up. The next thing you know, your friend is livid with you because his ex confronted him in furious tears, and now won't speak to him and is refusing to share custody of their beloved cat. You are dumbfounded by this turn of events and your impulse is to apologize to your friend profusely and repeatedly, begging desperately for forgiveness for your awful sins. What do do instead:
  • Identify your crime and apologize for it. You shouldn't have gossiped with your work friend; for that, you should apologize directly and genuinely.
  • Don't apologize for the parts that aren't your fault. While it's true that your behaviour triggered the chain of events, you aren't accountable for your work friend's decision or for the ex-girlfriend's dramatic reaction. You can, and should, be sorry that your initial mistake prompted the whole mess, but you still aren't responsible for other people's behaviour and you don't need to apologize for it. 
2) Let the apology fit the crime. If it's hard for you to tolerate someone being upset with you, you may use the understandable but unhelpful strategy of "keep apologizing until you're forgiven." The problem with this strategy is that eventually, the apology no longer fits the crime. Example: you accidentally bump a guy on a crowded bus and he spills his coffee on the floor. You apologize sincerely, but rather than accepting your apology or your offer to buy him a fresh cup, the guy continues to berate you as though you had purposefully grabbed the coffee from his hand and thrown it in his face. Your impulse is to apologize even harder, but wait a minute--you didn't abduct his first-born child; you merely spilled his $1.25 cup of coffee. If he doesn't accept your first or even your second apology, it's time to stop apologizing and walk away.

This rule applies to your friend and his ex as well. Say you issue a sincere apology for gossiping and for initiating the ensuing trouble, and your friend remains as angry as if you had personally kidnapped his cat. His anger doesn't fit the crime, and if you keep apologizing, soon the apology too will no longer fit the crime. It's time to walk away and give your friend some time to cool down.

Apologizing is hard and not over-apologizing can be even harder. Keeping in mind these rules can help you make a sincere and appropriate apology, with minimal anxiety and without going overboard.


  1. Why are you so Anti-Canadian?

    Over-apologising ... it's what we do!

  2. Agreed. I'm pretty sure this post has been flagged by CSIS.

  3. ««««Some people»»»»! Reading this made me miss you even more!

  4. I'm sorry I don't read your blog more often

  5. I think you present some pretty clear cut cases where the limits of the apology are obvious.