Given the news in the last 24 hours about one politician’s indecent language (and his subsequent “apology”), it seems like a good time to review the human tendency to defend ourselves and shift blame. We’ve been doing this since Adam and Eve blamed others for their fall. But rather than shrug our shoulders or think we are better then politicians, let’s use this opportunity to remember what constitutes a good apology. Consider reading some of these previous posts and discussing with your friends. Ask yourselves where you need to grow:
Tag Archives: Apologies
Public, direct, and heartfelt apologies are difficult…and rare.
I’ve written here numerous times about apologies and repentance. I find public apologies very interesting, especially by those who can afford to pay someone to help them “get it right.” Last week I listened to a public figure hold a press conference after his conviction for DUI. This person has a lot of money and access to all of the best “coaches”. And yet, his apology was all about himself. Asked what he learned? “I learned that life is full of second chances and I got one.” Now, that could mean that he realizes that he was protected from killing someone with his car. He avoided ending his career. Or, it could mean something far less than remorse. Really, his “apology” was all about himself.
Here’s my question to readers: Have you witnessed or experienced a “home run” apology? What made it so? What features were present? How did you know it wasn’t merely learning the right words? Did you ever think you received a real heartfelt apology only to discover later it wasn’t?
In “Machete Season” (book about Rwandan “killers”), one victim gives one requirement:
“If killers come to church to pray to God on their knees, to show us their remorse, I cannot pray either with them or against them. Real regrets are said eye to eye, not to statues of God.” (p. 163)
On a way too regular basis we observe others making apologies and/or confessions for wrongs done. This morning in my house, my one son hurt the feelings of the other and in working through the problem he made his apology under our direction. Not to be outdone, the other son wasn’t truthful about the situation and so later he too made a directed apology (aka, highly encouraged, but not forced).
Have you noticed that these kinds of apologies, whether from a ten year old or a 50 year old, ring hollow? It is easy from our stand point to concur that they don’t really mean what they say.
I think, in general, that this assessment isn’t accurate. Here’s why.
To hurt another; to do something for ourselves at the cost of others requires that we divorce empathy and self, reality and fantasy. So, when we do apologize, we cannot quickly reconnect these parts. Often the person does feel bad, guilty, afraid of the consequences. Notice that these feelings are rather self-centered. In time, if they go about reconnecting care for others and their feelings, they will feel much more empathy and concern for the wounded party. However, at the outset of their confession, these two things are still divorced. Thus the hollow confession. They do not know what they are really apologizing for beyond a few facts. The longer the deception, the longer the disconnection and time taken to reconnect to the experience of the other.
There are other confounding variables that hinder empathic confessions. One’s goal (get out of trouble, stop the pressure, smooth it over, please the other) may also decrease the likelihood empathy.
Really, my last post on this topic for now. But Lazare mentions that the dignity of the apologizer is diminished in the act of apologizing. Read his comment about his wife’s apology for a false accusation against their daughter,
Louise’s apology was successful because it diminished her own dignity while restoring Naomi’s. By saying, in effect, “I am the culprit, not you. I misplaced the brownie and blamed you when I should have known better.” (p. 50).
Later he talks about how apologies restore balance in relationships and restore dignity to the wronged. I agree with that, especially when the offender has power over the offended (like the illustration of the mother over the daughter).
But does the one doing the apologizing lose dignity when apologizing? To whom does that seem to be happening? When someone apologizes to me for something, I see their dignity going up, not down. It went down with the offense and returns with the heartfelt admission and request for forgiveness.
I think he has it wrong here. What do you think?
Last week I had a post on Aaron Lazare’s “On apology” (OUP, 2004) and while I don’t plan on blogging through his fine book, I will make a few comments on his second chapter (The paradox of apologies) since in it he tips his hand to the rest of the book. Here are some of his ideas:
1. An apology consists of “an encounter between two parties in which one part, the offender, acknowledges responsibility for an offense or grievance and expresses regret or remorse to a second party, the aggrieved.” (p. 23).
2. Some think apologies must include expressions of shame/guilt, an explanation, the intent to not do it again and reparations
3. The words “I’m sorry” may or may not be an apology and likely cause confusion since the speaker may be offering compassion or regret but not responsibility.
4. Perfunctory apologies are inadequate most of the time since you cannot tell the motivations of the offender (to restore or regain position, to empathize with the offended, etc.).
5. Many apologies offer explanation (defense, akin to the historic meaning of apology/apologetics). They are inadequate.
6. Women apologize more than men in life and in literature. It is often perceived to be unmanly to apologize. Some research say that women have a higher proclivity for guilt.
7. Other cultures have language much more clear about admitting to guilt. Japanese apologies tend to be much more admitting to shame and much more focused on restoring the relationship than relieving personal guilt. American apologies focus on sincerity but Japanese ones focus on submissiveness and avoid explanations.
8. The offended has certain needs: restoration of their dignity, assurances that they and the offender share a similar view of the situation, that they are now safe from further harm, that the offender has suffered, and promises now reparations.
9. When offender and offended are unaware of each other’s needs or motives, apologies often fail.
10. It is possible to apologize for ancestor sins even when not guilty for the act.
11. An apology can be negotiated
What do you think must be part of an apology. Reparations? Expressions of shame? A commitment to repent? Explanation for offense?
I have found that explanations tend to mute the apology and end up sounding like defenses for actions. I also find that saying that one is sorry is much easier than saying, I hurt you and I apologize. And both are easier than saying, “Will you forgive me?” I’m not sold on negotiating apologies. I’ll have to jump to that chapter to see if I might agree or not. Negotiations would seem to suggest the one apologizing is trying to control or manipulate the situation to his/her interests.
Yesterday I went to a local bookstore to buy a calender for my office wall and couldn’t help buy browsing some of their discounted books. Found this: On Apologyby Aaron Lazare (OUP, 2004). Lazare is a psychiatrist and Dean at UMASS Medical School. Have only read the first chapter but have found it interesting thus far. He explores the impression that apologies are on the rise from the early 1990s. Apparently, there are significantly more articles in all print media about apologies for wrongdoings from 1998-2002 than in the previous era of the 90s. He suggested several possible reasons: millennial angst (those wanting to clear their consciences prior to Y2K), the internetage where the world can uncover your sins much more easily (he gives several examples of how the digital age has caught people in statements that might otherwise have been missed). He also discusses the phenomena of “failed apologies” such as “I’m sorry if I might have hurt you”. These, he calls parasites that point to the real power of authentic apologies.
A couple of other tidbits. He says he will provide evidence that women apologize more than men AND more willing to admit culpability.
Second, he says this,
People who offer a pseudo-apology are unwilling to take the steps necessary for a genuine apology; that is, they do not acknowledge the offense adequately, or express genuine remorse, or offer appropriate reparations, including a commitment to make changes in the future. These three actions are the price of an effective apology. To undertake them requires honesty, generosity, humility, commitment, courage, and sacrifice. In other words, the rewards of an effective apology can only be earned. They cannot be stolen. (p. 9-10)
Do you agree with him? I like his description and the requirements, but I do think you can complete the 3 steps with falsehonesty, generosity, humility, etc. You can offer false remorse, reparations, and acknowledge the offense fully for reasons other than concern for the other.
Can an apology come too soon? I was listening to an NPR show discussing a national apology for slavery in the US (and reparations). One guest on the show stated that if a government or organization apologizes before there is adequate dialogue about the real effects of that entity’s misdeeds (i.e., support of slavery), it kills further dialogue.
Really? Why is it that if we apologize for hurting someone that we think the conversation is over?
Point of fact: true apologies invite further discussion, including exploration of the effects of the “crime.” When discussion ends because of an apology, we discover that the apology was really cover for, “Will you let me out of jail for what I did to you? Will you forget my bad behavior?”
True apologies are not formed as questions or requests–either explicitly or implicitly. It is offerings of forgiveness that end or at least change discussion regarding criminal activity. When we demand instant forgiveness or apology acceptance we inappropriately tie apologies with conversation endings.
Do you agree with this next statement? The truly repentant do not mind apologizing as many times as necessary nor engaging in conversation about the effects of their misdeeds.
In relationship to slavery, the matter is complicated in that the conversation is happening between those who either indirectly benefit or suffer from slavery. Because of our overemphasis on individualism, we often fail to acknowledge corporate sins and that some of us benefit from those corporate sins. Read Ezra and Nehemiah and you see a different picture. A people repenting for sins done by the previous generation. Now there’s a novel idea.