Against Apology Perfectionism
By Bryan Caplan
- Expression of regret
- Explanation of what went wrong
- Acknowledgment of responsibility
- Declaration of repentance
- Offer of repair
- Request for forgiveness
Taking responsibility means acknowledging mistakes you made that hurt the other person, and it’s one of the most important and neglected ingredients of most apologies, especially those in the media.
Saying something vague like, “I’m sorry if you were offended by something I said,” implies that the hurt feelings were a random reaction on the part of the other person. Saying, “When I said [the hurtful thing], I wasn’t thinking. I realize I hurt your feelings, and I’m sorry,” acknowledges that you know what it was you said that hurt the other person, and you take responsibility for it.
Overall, this seems like plausible advice. Ideal apologies will indeed have all six elements. The harsh reality, though, is that ideal apologies often require the superpower of telepathy. Why? Because the person who wants to apologize doesn’t understand why the other person is upset, and the person who wants an apology refuses to explain themselves. So unless the would-be apologizer can read minds, “sorry for whatever I did” is the best he can do.
The bigger question, though is: How will people actually use this research? Will they learn to make better apologies? Or simply to expect better apologies? I suspect that the latter effect will far exceed the former. If this suspicion is correct, the ironic result of this research is to exacerbate conflict rather than defuse it.
Why do I have this pessimistic view? For starters: As far as I can recall, I have never received an ideal apology – or anything close to it. In fact, I doubt I’ve received a dozen halfway decent apologies in my entire life. If I held this dearth against people, I wouldn’t have a friend left in the world. Instead of expecting apologies from others, I generally make excuses on their behalf.
My motives are partly strategic and partly sincere.
Strategically speaking, I know that demanding good apologies probably won’t work. People are stubborn and self-righteous. Unless I bite my tongue and appease them, I will be very lonely. You could object, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?” But if a friend unapologetically tramples my feelings five days a year, but makes me happy the other 360 days, I count myself lucky.
Sincerely speaking, I know that lively social interaction is an inherently risky activity. Boring, superficial conversations are safe: “Nice weather we’re having?” “Yes, quite.” As soon as you stray from that time-worn path, you might accidentally say the wrong thing. So if someone hurts your feelings as a result, the wise reaction is normally, “It’s all part of the game, no big deal.”
Wouldn’t I like to receive an apology every now and then? Sure. Wouldn’t I prefer apologies that contain an expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong, acknowledgment of responsibility, declaration of repentance, offer of repair, and request for forgiveness? Sure again. But in my book, even a “Sorry I hurt your feelings” with a sincere tone is amazingly above the bar. If offered, I’ll cheerfully take it. So should you.