On Apologizing Well: Insincerity and Contrition

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Apologies are hard. But, all too often, culture has made them easy – by accepting bad apologies, by excusing poorly done responses because of a tone of contrition, by allowing a narrative of “well, he apologized” to sublimate the pain of those to whom the apology is directed.

There are a number of mistakes that are incredibly easy to make because our cultural bar of what is an acceptable apology is notoriously low – all one has to do is offer some kind of apologetic sounding words, and they’re forgiven by public opinion and allowed to carry on. This is especially true if they’re a rich, cishet, white dude (cf. Hugh Grant, David Letterman, etc).

In light of the recent Hugo Schwyzer twitter meltdowns and debacles, we’ve seen a number of these mistakes play out in real time as Professional White Feminists offer supposed contrition for their role in allowing Schwyzer to carry on, publishing him for ages after objections to him, especially from women of color, were loud, fierce, and disquieting.

So what mistakes do people make with their apologies? Here’s a handy list.

Problem One: They blame the victim. This is such a common construction within apologies that we often mistake it for a real apology – we say it without even thinking about how it sounds or what it means. What does it look like? “I’m sorry you read it that way.” “I’m sorry it came across as offensive.” “We apologize to any who were inadvertently offended by our words.” What this does is that it places the responsibility for the offenses on the people hurt and fails to take responsibility for the choice of words/actions that led to the hurt.

A real apology, instead, should acknowledge responsibility and own error: “I am sorry that I hurt you.” Full stop.

Problem Two: They fail to provide a specific recognition of what the hurt specifically was. This lack of being specific in acknowledging the hurt obfuscates any chance for actual growth on the part of the apologizer. If you acknowledge specific hurt and pain, you demonstrate that you actually understand why what you did was wrong, which makes the apology more meaningful to both yourself and the person you hurt.

“I’m sorry that I played a part in perpetuating an ongoing oppression of people of color and became defensive when challenged instead of listening to and honoring your lived experience.” You have to, of course, already understand why what you did was wrong and be able to articulate it to yourself before you apologize – this is a massively important part of contrition.

Problem Three: Failure to include a plan of action for how you aim to prevent repeating your mistakes. This requires an understanding of the hurt caused, how it happened, and thinking to the future as to how you will change things in the future. This is the last part of genuine contrition – a pledge and a plan to prevent doing the same in the future, and a commitment to making sure that you do not do it again. “I’m sorry” isn’t enough in this case – you must make an effort to actively change and become a different person than you were before you caused that hurt.

Problem four: demanding forgiveness rather than realizing that it is a gift. We usually see this in the aftermath of a poorly done apology – and usually on the part of friends dispatched to defend the apologizer: “He apologized! What more do you want? You’re bitter and ungracious for not accepting!” Forgiveness is not something that is given lightly, nor is it an automatic response magically given for an “I’m sorry.” It is something the hurt person gets to choose, and it is solely in their purview to give or withhold. Recognizing this also acknowledges and accepts  the consequences of one’s actions and recognizes that apologies do not negate consequences from one’s actions.

A truly contrite, well-done apology, for, say, defending the publishing of Hugo Schwyzer after several people have protested about his work, would look like this: “I’m sorry that I hurt you. I failed to account for my own privilege in the midst of my defensiveness about this discussion and should have stepped back before I jumped in to defend someone so offensive. I am re-examining my editorial processes and will be seeking the opinions of people outside my circle of privilege in the future in order to ensure that this sort of thing will not happen again.”

Apologies are some of the hardest things people have to do. This is because true contrition is a process, just as redemption is a process. The better we understand that apologies are not magic and forgiveness is not a transaction, the better we will be as people and as advocates.