The Modern Survival Guide #6
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And I’m very sorry to say that in this entry we’re talking about apologies, why you should apologize for things, and how to apologize for something without messing it all up. To make it easier, because I am a kind and considerate writer, I’ve numbered the steps involved. Feel free to skim ahead.
Apologies are some of the most important words that will ever leave your mouth. To apologize is to humble yourself, and recognize both verbally and internally that you are not always correct. When you are wrong, apologize. This is one of the key tests of whether or not you have achieved adulthood, and those who never apologize are the most deluded kind of fools, because everyone screws up at some point. Apologies can literally save friendships, families, marriages, and lives. So for God’s sake do them correctly.
Note: This guide assumes that you are apologizing for the purpose of continuing to interact with someone. If you just feel the need to say “I’m sorry,” and then cut ties, skip step 6.
Step 1: Feel Actual Contrition
Understand that if you think you need to apologize to someone, you probably do. If you feel bad about doing something, an apology is probably deserved. And if someone demands an apology, they probably are correct. Not always, but most of the time.
So put yourself in the frame of mind “I did something wrong.” That’ll help you sound sincere. In apologies, sincerity is everything — if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.
If you don’t feel real contrition or you don’t think you can fake it properly, don’t apologize. Maybe other people will see you as an asshole, but at least they’ll know you’re an honest asshole, and they’ll have some expectation of future behavior from you.
Step 2: Pick Your Venue
A proper apology is not conducted from a position of power. You’re being humble and acknowledging culpability, not seeking to awe your audience. So do not apologize from behind a desk, or while emoting any other form of physical intimidation. If at all possible, apologize to someone face to face and at the same height level. Don’t bend down or that kind of thing — that’s just patronizing — but sitting with someone works fine.
Step 3: Pick Your Words Carefully
Apologies are all about making amends for a specific action or series of actions. They are about admitting you are wrong, period. People often mess this up.
It’s not about saying you were wrong but someone else was too.
It’s not about insinuating that the other party had a hand in the bad thing as well.
It’s not about saying you were wrong because of X, Y, or Z circumstance.
It’s not about asking for forgiveness. That’s a separate conversation.
It is about admitting you were wrong, and saying you are sorry. That’s it. That’s all. And that’s literally all you have to say. Just put it out there and then if the other person doesn’t have anything to say, that’s on them, not you. They don’t owe you a damn thing, because you’re the one who screwed up.
Step 4: Watch Your Tone
As anyone who has ever raised or been a teenager knows, tone is one of the key components of communication that everyone knows is important, but no one wants to have to control. Controlling your tone is hard. Most of us use tones by instinct, and most of the time our instincts are correct in that our tones convey accurate information about our emotional state.
You don’t necessarily want the other person to have accurate information about your emotional state when apologizing. A LOT of apologies get made in order to smooth over a rough edge, not necessarily because the apologizer thinks they were in the wrong (remember, sincerity — if you can fake that, you’ve got it made). But a lot of apologies still have to happen to allow two people to continue to interact. And nothing spoils the apology faster than a mis-matched tone.
Your tone should be consistently quiet, subdued, and contrite. Your body language should match. You don’t have to appear weak — weakness is never attractive or conducive to good relations — but you shouldn’t sound or look happy while apologizing to a man for sleeping with his wife, either.
Step 5: Leave the Room
Once you’re done apologizing, leave. Be polite about it, but leave unless the other party is begging you to stay. You don’t have to go far — and sometimes you shouldn’t. Leaving the house after apologizing to your spouse can send the wrong message. But you usually should leave the other person alone for at least a few minutes.
Apologies are awkward by default. You know you’ve done something wrong. They know you’ve done something wrong. Very likely there are some hurt feelings. Nobody is happy to be there. So as happy as they may be at some point that you apologized, in that moment they’re probably still pissed at you. You need to give them time to process. And they can’t do that with you staring at them.
So leave the room. Give them time to think.
Step 6: Afterward
After making an apology, and giving the recipient some time to think, you need to find out if the apology was sufficient. You can’t, ever, make the assumption that just because you apologized, now things are OK. You need to ask the other party, as directly as is tactful in the situation, whether or not you are forgiven. Now for the really tough part: if they say “no,” you have to be OK with that.¹
An apology never, ever, guarantees that someone will forgive you. You shouldn’t expect forgiveness. Nonetheless, a good apology can re-open closed doors or repair your status with people you care about. Not apologizing is almost never the correct move in the long term. That’s how you burn bridges and make enemies. You may make enemies anyway, but it doesn’t need to be because you were an asshole.
Ideally, after a little while the recipient of your apology will think about it and realize you did a good thing by trying to make amends. Ideally, they will forgive you. Ideally, things can go back to whatever “normal” means in context. It’s not guaranteed. But it’s virtually impossible without a good apology.
¹Be careful with serial apologies. If you’ve apologized a couple of times for the same thing, and the other person isn’t having any part of it, you have probably irrevocably wrecked a relationship. At this point, as hard as it might be, it’s time to put some distance between yourself and the other person… for your own good.