The Art of the Apology

Understanding the role of the apology, and why saying “I’m sorry” isn’t really an apology at all.

Dear reader, as a proud citizen of Canadia-Land – the True North Strong and Free(zing) – I am of course well aware of the near-ubiquitous cliché surrounding our penchant for seeking absolution.

In other words, our tendency to apologize.

You may believe that it is my extensive training as a Canuck that has prompted this particular scribbling on the art of the apology.

If so, then you’ve stepped right into my trap Mr. Bond, because that is NOT my reason for penning this missive!

No, this essay came to me fully formed (as they so often do) while I was in the shower. I had been ruminating on a specific type of behaviour I’ve noticed of late among my fellow human-flavoured humans.

Note: What follows is purely a personal opinion. You may agree or disagree as you see fit, but the accompanying thoughts are, I believe, well considered and I hope, thoughtful. You be the judge.

Let me paint you a scene. A human – we’ll call him “Dave” because “Cardinal Richelieu” is already taken – says or does something that upsets his partner-human, whom we’ll call “Not-Dave.” Dave becomes aware of his partner’s consternation and immediately attempts to show his contrition by saying, “I’m sorry.”

Nothing unusual in that right? A simple interaction where one human inadvertently causes injury to another, and then apologizes.

But what if I told you that Dave did NOT really apologize?

“Now hang on,” I hear you sputter in that endearingly italicized way you have, “What’s ‘I’m sorry’ then if not an apology?”

Steady on dear reader, all will be revealed in the fullness of time.

You see, “I’m sorry” is not an apology. It’s the BEGINNING of an apology to be sure – a preface if you will – but it’s no more a complete apology than “Will you?” is a marriage proposal. Allow me to explain.

True contrition – the desire to make amends for wrongs committed – requires more than a two-word knee-jerk response.

We’re all familiar with the stereotypical scenario of the guy who realizes his girlfriend is upset with him, and then clumsily apologizes without ever really understanding what it is he’s apologizing for. It’s such a commonplace trope in fiction that it’s almost taken on a life of its own.

However, it isn’t only within the realm of fiction that this habit can be found. I see it all the time among my fellow humans. Indeed, I’m embarrassed to admit that in the past, I’ve fallen prey to it as well.

So what’s the problem, you ask? Well, the primary issue is one of sincerity. If you apologize for something without understanding what you’re apologizing for, can that be labelled as anything other than disingenuous? It becomes a meaningless gesture, a habitual stimulus-response that does nothing to assuage your partner’s injured feelings, much less offer any hope of rebuilding trust.

Every interaction between humans – both positive AND negative – presents opportunities to communicate and learn from one another. When we reduce those interactions to basic stimulus-responses, we forfeit those same opportunities. We learn nothing about each other, and our connection – that beautiful, inexplicable, one-part-chemistry / two-parts-witchcraft linkage we call relationships – weakens.

I have always stood by the idea that one should NEVER apologize unless one knows exactly what they are apologizing for. To do any less is, as already stated, disingenuous and insulting.

Allow me, dear reader, to offer my own humble opinion on how best to handle the situation I outlined at the beginning of this missive:

In our original scenario, “Dave” had inadvertently said or done something that upset his partner, “Not-Dave.” Dave realizes what’s happening and gives it some honest consideration. After a short time, he sits down with his partner and offers the following:

“Look, I realize that you’re upset about [REASON], and I want you to know I’m truly sorry. You have every right to be upset. I [ACTED/SPOKE] without thinking. I’ve thought about this and I want you to know that I understand why it upset you. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s likely that [WHY HE BELIEVES HIS PARTNER IS UPSET].”

At this point, Dave sits quietly and listens to his partner’s response, and his/her feelings on the matter. He doesn’t interrupt, he simply LISTENS.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this be used as a script (talk about disingenuous!), nor am I saying that communicating in this way will lead to instant forgiveness. Depending on the severity of the matter, that may be a long time coming – if at all. What I am saying is that when we approach interactions in a thoughtful and respectful way, we do more than just smooth ruffled feathers or avoid an argument.

We begin to truly LEARN about the people in our lives, their feelings, motivations and possibly even their innermost anxieties and fears. That information allows us to be more thoughtful, and builds stronger relationships as a result.

One final note: This particular process is not restricted to romantic relationships, nor is it confined to the Male->Female dynamic. It can be adapted to any kind of relationship, from friends to coworkers, and in any combination of gender identities.

The art of the apology is far more than just a social convention for acknowledging culpability. It’s a vital tool for navigating the strange and beautiful path that connects us all.

We abandon it at our peril.

2 replies on “The Art of the Apology”

7 years of marriage that have been really rocky and this missive brought to light another thing I appreciate about my spouse. He apologizes. Correctly. Thoughtfully. From the heart. Sincerely.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *