Once upon a time in this world, I was taught to say “I’m sorry” as a way of expressing regret at my behavior. “I’m sorry” is not for big, mean, anger explosions. It is meant for bumping into someone at the store, or stepping on someone’s foot in an elevator. For those of us trained early to apologize, we will apologize to the table when we bump into it, and to the door frame when our toe smacks it.
Right around the time “You’re welcome” became “No problem,” we stopped apologizing. It became more important to save our self-esteem, our pride, or our image. And apologies–admitting a wrong and offering to repair the error–doesn’t really polish the image.
Apologizing is never our of style. Only strong and understanding people can apologize. They know the value of words, and the value of honoring someone.
Here are 6 (well, 5-plus one) apologies that are either nonpologies or fauxpologies. But they won’t help the relationship.
- The word “but” has no place in an apology. “I didn’t mean to push you aside, but I am in a hurry.” The coordinating conjunction (but) is a linking word, not an eraser for everything that came before. That nonpology blames the pushed person for not getting out of the way fast enough. Blaming others is never an apology.
- “It was never my intention . . .” The road to hell is paved with good intentions, says the still-useful proverb. All your intentions? Nothing. Actions count. If you treat someone shabbily, that shows how you feel about them. Looking at your acquaintance with Keane-eyes and saying, “It was never my intention to treat anyone shabbily, I make every effort to treat everyone with great equality and compassion!” is a statement about how you would want others to see you. It does nothing to mitigate your bad behavior.
- Summary to #2: it’s not an apology if you blame the other person for not seeing you the way you want to be perceived. This is a classic fauxpology. The other person’s pain hasn’t registered with you, because you do not want to feel guilty, blame, or shame. Apologizing actually helps you get through your shame.
- “I’m sorry” is not a complete apology. If I break a wine glass at a dinner party, saying “I’m sorry” is not enough. I must also replace the wine glass, or at least offer to do it. If you break someone’s emotional wine glass, you have to make some sort of amends to heal. And you have to involve the hurt person for suggestions. Deep conversations lead to repaired friendships.
- “I’m sorry you feel that way,” is not an apology. It’s another version of, “I’m sorry you’re stupid.” The phrase, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” is about you. Apologies are about the other person’s feelings. Try saying, “I can see how much pain I caused you by saying [doing] that. I feel bad about being thoughtless.”
- “I’m sorry for you; you are really too sensitive.” A nonpology prize winner. If you offend someone, you do not also get to label them “too sensitive” to cover your own embarrassment. Any version of this (“You don’t have a sense of humor,” “I was only kidding,” “Can’t you take a joke?,” “Lighten up!”) is hurting someone to shine up your own image. You do not get to decide on the quality of someone’s humor. Spend time working on your own problems.
In today’s atmosphere, apologizing is hard. It rattles our self-image, shakes our carefully constructed image of ourselves as hero. The trouble with non-apologies is that the damage left unresolved hurts you far more deeply than an apology. You might feel you have escaped embarrassment by pointing out that someone can’t take a joke, but what your actions say is that you are arrogant, condescending and cruel. A heartfelt apology might make us feel shame for a second, but the rush of admitting our mistake and the effort of fix what we broke is a building block in feeling self-esteem. Yes, apologizing is not only good for the other person, the relationship, but you, too.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer and creativity coach, who writes about creative approaches to life.