Sunday, July 29, 2007

The APOLOGY....A Lost Art?

It occurs to me that much of what we are taught in school is useless and the things that would really be helpful to us are never taught. Things such as managing our finances which could make life as adults so much more stress-free and enjoyable are overlooked in favor of Calculus which unless you are on your way to rocket scientist land will provide no advantage to you in the real world. One of the things that should be taught to every individual on the planet is the art of being a participant in an apology. Note that I said the art of being a participant in an apology and NOT the art of apologizing. In my opinion, most folks do not excel at this activity and from my observations, it does not seem to matter if one is the individual making the apology or the one to whom the apology is being made; typically, they both suck at the job. So I thought I would take some time to share some thoughts on the art of participating in an apology in the hope that I might be able to help others in some small way.

To start, here are a couple examples where participants in apologies have lost their way:

  1. "I'm sorry for whatever it is that you think I did to you?"
  2. "I know I was wrong but you did the same thing two weeks ago and I didn't say anything about it, but whatever, I apologize if it will make you shut-up."
  3. "Just because I accepted your apology doesn't mean you are off the hook; you owe me."
  4. "I accept your apology but I don't forgive you yet."
Apology: a justification or defense of an act or idea, from the Greek apologia (απολογία). An apology can also be an expression of contrition and remorse for something done wrong. An example would be: "I apologize for stealing your carrots, please forgive me!"

One of the fallacies of most of the world's thinking about apologies is that the individual making the apology is not sincere if they in any way attempt to offer an explanation of how they ended up in the predicament requiring an apology [i.e. What do you think when you hear the following, "See, what had happened was..."]. As is evident by the Wikipedia's definition of the word apology shown above, "justification and defense of one's actions or ideas" can be an integral part of an apology. It is important to remember this when receiving an apology as it is always the right of the "alleged offender" to offer his/her perspective on how what transpired occurred. Allowing the offender to share their perspective or rationale in some cases can make it possible for the receiver to be able to accept the offered apology when he/she might not otherwise have been able to understand the why of what happened.
Another fallacy is the thought that an apology MUST be about regret. Though sorrow may be involved in most apologies, it is NOT a required ingredient. It is possible for an individual to feel no remorse for their actions that led to an injury requiring an apology even though they might feel remorse about having caused the injury. The offender's intent should play some role in determining whether or not to accept an apology particularly when the injury occurred without malice aforethought. Even so, the individual making the apology must be cognizant of the fact that though he/she might not feel remorse for the circumstances that led to them needing to make an apology, they ABSOLUTELY must admit that they were responsible for some level of wrong otherwise, no apology would be necessary. These are the minimal responsibilities of the individual making the apology.

If an individual finds his/herself in the unfortunate position of being owed an apology, even though they are the injured party there are minimal expectations placed upon them as well. This person should take the time to examine his/her true feelings about what the apologizing individual did that necessitated the apology. During this examination of the situation the person receiving the apology should honestly assess the amount of injury that was inflicted, the true intent of the offender, and whether or not they themselves have over-reacted. The individual receiving the apology should be honest with him/herself about whether or not anything the offender might offer to do could truly make things alright again. If the feeling is that reparations can be made to "even the score", the receiver of the apology should decide for him/herself prior to the apology being offered what exactly those reparations should be in order for the offer of apology to be accepted and the injury forgiven.

Finally and most importantly, the receiver of the apology MUST then be ready to forgive the offender effective immediately following acceptance of the apology.

My own experiences and objective observations have shown me time and time again that few view the process of apologizing and accepting apologies in the same way that I do. Society at large seems to view the process of apologies as anything but a serious matter as is evidenced in pop culture [i.e. Ruben Studdard's attempt to apologize in advance for all of 2004]. Personal experiences that I have had demonstrate that most people not only expect apologies to be filled with a level of grief and remorse that few of us truly feel outside of funerals, but also, that offering any semblance of an explanation of one's own rationale or reasoning invalidates the entire apology. Additionally, in most cases it is a virtual impossibility to offer an acceptable apology because the individual to whom the apology is being offered has absolutely no idea of what they require to deem the apology acceptable. I definitely understand the notion of "different strokes for different folks", however I find it very hard to comprehend this idea of grudge holding. If an apology is accepted, that in essence means that all is forgiven and bygones will be allowed to BE GONE!

So, in an attempt to improve the appreciation of the art of the apology from both perspectives, I have developed a list of dos and don'ts.

When making an apology:
  • DO be sincere. Sincerity is essential to a good apology.
  • DON'T offer an insincere apology as the lack of sincerity makes any attempt at apologizing a waste of time for everyone involved.
  • DO be specific about EXACTLY what it is you are apologizing for. If indeed you believe you were justified in taking whatever the actions were that led to the need for the apology to be made, feel free to offer a brief explanation. Focus on the fact that even though you felt your actions were justified, you regret the outcome of the situation and are willing to do whatever is agreed upon by both parties to repair the situation.
  • DON'T place too much emphasis on trying to explain yourself as it may in actuality read like a lack of accountability on your part.
  • DO understand that the person to whom you are apologizing feels that he/she has been injured and because of this may need some time to decide if he/she can accept your apology.
  • DON'T rush the person to whom you are apologizing to accept your apology.
  • DO allow yourself to forgive yourself regardless of whether or not your apology is ever accepted as you are really not a bad person even if you were in the wrong in this situation.
  • DON'T assume that your apology will be accepted. Extending an apology is NOT a guarantee of acceptance of said apology and it most certainly doesn't guarantee forgiveness.
  • DO move on regardless of the outcome once you have made your best attempt to repair the injury.

When receiving an apology:

  • DO proactively set expectations relative to the elements the apology must contain in order to be accepted.
  • DON'T wait until the apology is taking place before you set your expectations as this will cloud your thinking and you should determine for yourself what is necessary to make things right as you are the injured party.
  • DO allow the person extending the apology to explain him/herself.
  • DON'T allow said explanation to become a "Jedi Mind Trick" that leaves you feeling everything was your own fault.
  • DO decide if the offered apology is sufficient to repair the injury you experienced or not and use that as the basis for accepting or refusing to accept the apology.
  • DON'T accept the apology if it is deficient in any way that is important to you as you will be resentful and feel taken advantage of in the long run.
  • DO expect that if the apology is accepted you MUST forgive the injury and NEVER bring it up again.

These are the minimum responsibilities of each individual participant involved in the process of offering and receiving an apology as I see it. I would love to hear your thoughts whether they differ from or are aligned with my own. Please drop a comment as I am interested in the perspectives of others regarding this issue.

In closing, properly extending and receiving an apology in my opinion is fast becoming a lost art. In an attempt to build greater interest, appreciation, and participation in this art, I offered this post. If however my perspective doesn't offer as much insight as you might need regarding making a good apology, there is always this website which you can utilize as a last ditch effort. Unfortunately, the website one can utilize to properly accept an apology and move on is yet to be developed; so until further notice you're on your own in this department!

I am sorry that good apology etiquette has become a lost art and I hope that I have played at least a small role in bringing it back to its former glory.


Rose said...

This is very informative. Would make a great workshop. I see you are a deep thinker too.