[Content Warning: Discussion of the men who have recently been implicated in sexual harassment and assault]
Why do so many people undermine their apologies with defensiveness?
When celebrity chef Mario Batali apologized for sexually harassing his employees, he included a link to a recipe at the end of the email.
This fits into the pattern we’ve seen in many of the recently named abusers. When (if) they apologize, they’re sure to lace it with a few face saving measures:
- “[I apologize if I’ve hurt anyone], but I remember the incident differently” (Al Franken)
- “[It’s] not reflective of who I am.” (Dustin Hoffman)
- “I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it”, followed by “Any allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied by Mr. Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein has further confirmed that there were never any acts of retaliation against any women for refusing his advances” via a spokesperson. (Harvey Weinstein)
Amazingly, and for the first time I can remember, (most) people aren’t buying it.
Ignoring most of these apologies is almost certainly the correct response. In fact, I wouldn’t even call them apologies. An apology is a surrender. These statements are rearguards.
What I mean is: as long as you’re defending yourself, you aren’t internalizing the consequences of your actions. For as long as you keep fighting, you get to keep believing that maybe consequences won’t materialize. Maybe you’ll say the right thing; maybe the consequences will disappear.
An apology accepts consequences.
Imagine yourself arguing with someone you’ve hurt. Imagine the wiggle words and excuses you might use. Imagine the fear you feel, the fear of failure, or the fear of hurting someone you love. Imagine how easy it is to give into that fear. Imagine how hard it is to ignore it, to be quiet, to listen when someone tells you that you’ve hurt them.
Doing that, despite the voice inside you telling you to fight, telling you to try and get away clean, that’s scary; that’s difficult. That’s a surrender.
(This is probably a good place to mention the law of equal and opposite advice; some people reading this probably need to surrender more and some people probably need to surrender less. This advice is aimed at the people who need to surrender more. Hopefully you know who you are? If you need to surrender less and you’ve wasted time reading this, sorry. Have some photos of a delightful owl/dog friendship as recompense.)
Of course, surrendering is just the first step. It’s best if you back it up with something of substance. My four-step algorithm for a proper surrender-apology goes:
1. How did I hurt them?
Sometimes people will tell you straight up how you hurt them. Others won’t. And when you’re proactively apologizing, you may know that you did something likely to hurt someone, but not exactly how you hurt them.
To figure out how you hurt someone, consult your mental model of them. Try and remember what makes them sad or insecure. How did your action intersect with that? Don’t assume they’ll be hurt in the same way as you would. Let’s say you played a prank on a co-worker involving paint that ruined their outfit and made them really mad. You might be mad if someone played a similar prank on you because of the ruined clothes. But maybe they’re mad because they’re quiet and anxious and you put them on the spot in an embarrassing situation in front of a lot of people. If that was the case, the clothes might barely even register for them. Therefore, it’s best if you don’t focus your apology on the clothes, but on the embarrassment.
If you don’t know how you hurt someone, or you want to check if you guessed correctly, you can ask:
- Did <my action X> make you feel <Y>?
- It seems like <my action X> made you really sad. Can you help me understand how I hurt you?
- I suspect you might be feeling <Y>, is that correct?
- If someone did <my action X> to me, I’d be feeling <Y>. Is that what you feel right now?
When asking these questions, be careful to keep your tone neutral and not accusatory and to back off if whoever you’re apologizing to doesn’t seem keen on answering. Also note that there’s always some risk in asking questions; some people believe that you should just know how you hurt them. I don’t endorse this as a social norm, but I understand where the feeling comes from and want to make note of it.
2. Validate and Apologize
Here’s a good script for the start of an apology:
“I am really sorry that I did X. It seems like the kind of thing that would make you feel Y, which makes a lot sense. It’s crappy that I did that to you. You are an important person in my life and I want to work to avoid doing this again.”
Being able to articulate how you hurt someone shows empathy. It also shows that you aren’t horribly self-centred. The focus is on their pain, not your need to have an apology accepted.
Above all other things, avoid the passive voice here. There’s no point being sorry that someone “was hurt”. Nothing says “I am apologizing only because it socially expected” like the passive voice.
Notice also that this script validates what the person is feeling. It proactively assures them that there isn’t something wrong with them for feeling hurt. It makes it clear that their response is reasonable, expected, and that you’re the one who did something wrong.
This is one opportunity to surrender. It is excruciatingly difficult to accept full responsibility for your actions without giving any excuses. But it’s important that you do that first. It shows how serious you are and really helps to validate the emotions of the person you’re apologizing to.
3. (If desired) Explain yourself
After you’ve made a mistake, people often want to be assured that you are a fundamentally reasonable person who doesn’t go around hurting friends for fun. If someone asks you “why?”, you should be prepared to explain yourself.
I think it is best to be brutally honest here, which means you first have to be prepared to be brutally honest with yourself. “I just don’t know what came over me” is a comforting excuse; it implies that this was sudden, incomprehensible, and unlikely to happen again – so don’t allow yourself to believe it! Cop-outs like that allow you to avoid your failings. In almost all cases, “I just don’t know what came over me” (or its ilk) can be replaced with something like:
- “Our relationship made me feel undesirable and they made me feel sexy again”
- “I thought it would be fun and that I could convince you to feel okay about it later”
- “I was so fixated on how funny it would be that I didn’t want to think about whether it was right or wrong”
- “I’m so used to doing things for other people. I thought ‘fuck it, I’m going to do this just for me'”
Here you must surrender any belief you have that what you did “just happened”. There’s almost certainly a reason for it and the reason is probably uncomfortable – and probably points to some other problem with you or your relationship.
I have a bad habit of leaving this step out, even when asked. Part of this is that I’m personally against excusing myself and part of this is that being “against excuses” is a great cop-out when you aren’t very proud of your actual reasons. But I’m trying to get better, because I think people do find it discomfiting to have their request for explanation ignored.
Apologies aren’t magic. Sometimes even the most sincere and heartfelt apology won’t change someone’s mind if they’ve decided they don’t want to be around you anymore. If that’s the case, take your leave as gracefully as you can and try and figure out how you can do better in similar situations in the future. A sincere apology definitionally cannot be contingent on getting something in return.
4. (If desired) Discuss how to avoid this in the future
This is another step that it’s tempting to jump to, perhaps before you’ve even finished apologizing. It’s nice to believe that if you convince someone that you’ll avoid something in the future, you don’t really have to apologize for it now. This is part of the fast-talking school of apology, where you overwhelm someone with excuses, plans for the future, and rushed sorries so that you don’t ever have to surrender, admit you’re in the wrong, or fundamentally change anything about yourself.
Instead of rushing into this, you should wait until the person you’re apologizing to has had time to digest your apology and thought about what they want. Maybe they don’t want to talk about it at all. Maybe they have specific things they want from you and don’t want to feel like they’re fighting against your plans for the future.
What I’m saying is that while this can be useful, it can also hurt. Make sure whoever you’re apologizing to is ready to hear this part of the apology and wants to hear this part of the apology.
How you plan to avoid your mistakes in the future will probably be unique to your circumstances. That said, one piece of advice I have is to avoid the outcome bias. If you would do the same things again in the same situation because you expect it on average to be positive, you aren’t doing anyone a favour by lying about it. Address the ways in which your decision making was suspect. Don’t weasel out of anything by promising not to do specific actions when you know full well you’d do the same general thing again.
And if you’ve hurt someone in the same way a bunch of times, you may find that plans no longer cut it. Them forgiving you can become contingent on results, not words.
Ultimately, an apology is an acknowledgement that you would have acted differently in the situation if you were better at acting the way you want to act. An apology indicates a willingness to change. If you instead endorse the actions you took and have no intent of deciding differently in the future, you shouldn’t apologize at all. If this is the case, you can tell whoever you hurt that you regret hurting them. You can tell them that you wish they hadn’t been hurt. But you cannot truthfully tell them you wouldn’t hurt them that same way again if you have any choice in the matter. So, don’t walk down the road that ends that way.
It isn’t worth it.
In the examples at the start, it seemed the only thing anyone regretted was getting caught. Remember that these are the examples that our culture provides; it’s no wonder that it’s easy to learn the wrong lessons about apologies! When apologizing to our loved ones, it’s natural to let these lessons seep in and make us defensive when we should be open. Apologizing better requires a conscious act, one that I’m still learning how to do. This post is my attempt to chronicle these tentative efforts in a way that might be useful to others who are also struggling.