Monday, July 13, 2009

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

One of the most profound human interactions is the offering and accepting of apologies. Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties. For the offender, they can diminish the fear of retaliation and relieve the guilt and shame that can grip the mind with a persistence and tenacity that are hard to ignore. The result of the apology process, ideally, is the reconciliation and restoration of broken relationships.
Dr. Aaron Lazare, On Apology
Recently, I reconnected with an old friend.

Things between us ended badly, but many years have passed, and I've long since let go of my bitterness about it. So, out of curiosity, I found him on Facebook and sent a message of the hey-how-are-you-how-are-your-parents-what-are-you-up-to-now variety.

My friend's reply contained a gift I had long desired, but hadn't dared to hope for: an apology. And while he expressed frustration that he couldn't make it come out "right," his apology had the main thing every true apology needs: he took responsibility.


Psychiatrist Aaron Lazare's book On Apology centers around the story of two old friends whose friendship is mended by a letter of apology.

His book is a sort of psychology-of-apology, looking at the individual and social impact of apology in various cultural and historical settings.
But the book is more than a dry survey of social customs. Early on, Lazare outlines three components of a genuine apology:
  • adequate acknowledgement of the offense
  • an expression of genuine remorse
  • an offer of reparation and/or a commitment to make change
An apology missing any of these three elements, Lazare writes, is a pseudo-apology, in which "the offender is trying to reap the benefits of apologizing without having actually earned them" (p. 9).

Unfortunately, the hollow ring of a pseudo-apology usually makes a bad situation worse.

Pseudo-apologies have been common news media fodder over the last several years. (Who can forget the infamous "Mistakes were made"?) But it's not just public officials, celebrities, and big companies (I'm looking at you, Dell) who fall prey to the temptation of the pseudo-apology.

Most of us have used some variation of "I'm sorry if you were upset..." This looks like it acknowledges the offense, but it subtly turns the responsibility back to the offended one.

Or the classic excuse-masquerading-as-an-apology: "I'm sorry, but..." This one is more concerned with alibi than apology.

In fact, it's probably safe to say that following "I'm sorry" with "if" or "but" is not really apologizing at all.

Of course, there's the old standard "Sorry about that" and its younger cousin "My bad." These two posers skate by the offense too quickly and casually to be taken as serious apologies.


Apologies are powerful agents of healing in relationships. So why are we so reluctant to offer them?

Lazare's study of physicians reveals pride and fear behind their reluctance to apologize (p. 20). This is no big surprise: doctors work hard for their position, and they're (usually justifiably) proud of their accomplishments; as for fear, the mere mention of legal action can send the staunchest medical professional into a dim corner where he can rock with a blanket in the fetal position.

(OK, maybe that's just me — my profession also requires malpractice insurance, and I can't even talk about it without stuttering.)

Interestingly, biblical ethicist Robertson McQuilkin lists pride and fear as two of the four root sins — those sins that every other sin can be traced back to. An apology requires us to repent of (literally, to turn away from) both these sins: to turn away from pride and come to the other person in humility; to turn away from fear and risk rejection.

An apology is a gift. Would it still be a gift if it didn't cost something?


We're friends with a young couple who take apology very seriously. They're raising three young sons, and while their parenting style is relaxed in some areas, they are sticklers when it comes to apologies. If one son has hurt another, both boys are guided through a three-step process that includes: a specific apology by the offender including a request for forgiveness; a granting of forgiveness by the offended; and a hug of reconciliation between the two.

It's really amazing to watch the kids cooperate with the process, and to see it bearing fruit in their relationships with each other, with their parents, and with family friends.


Oh, and that letter of apology in Lazare's book? Its writer was apologizing for an offense that took place when the two friends were children, 61 years earlier. In telling the story, Lazare makes a strong point: it's never too late.


A future post will look at forgiveness and its relationship to apology. In the meantime, I'd like to hear from you. What's your most encouraging apology story?



  1. This was good, Pam. Thanks for sharing. I feel like I might need a day to mull it over, though. Trying to remember "the most encouraging apology" is especially difficult. I think the ones that come to mind the easiest are mostly the "Sorry, but..." apology stories. And maybe that, in itself, is something I need to work harder on. Remembering positives instead of negatives... :-/

  2. Thanks for your comment, Rachel.

    I agree -- it's much easier to remember the aggravating situations where a real apology would have made a difference, but it didn't happen.

    Maybe you have a story where you were the one who offered the apology...?

  3. Excellent post. I am collecting links on this topic and adding yours to my blog here:


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