Apologizing is one of the very first social behaviors we are taught, but the instruction we’re given as children isn’t setting us up for success as adults. Especially in an age of call-out culture, well meant apologies can sometimes do more harm than good. How can we make sure to approach apologies in a way that will mend bridges instead of burn them?
I’m going to start today by inviting you to think about how we’re introduced to the concept of apologies. Many of us made our first apology as a young child, at the instruction of a parent because we did something unkind to someone else. After looking guilty and muttering a simple “I’m sorry,” we’d receive a perfunctory “I forgive you,” and scamper off, having met the basic criteria of an apology.
What was that apology intended to accomplish? It taught a ritual of remorse and forgiveness, but void of any deeper meaning; we knew the words we were supposed to say on both sides, and we said them often without thought or intention, just following what we knew we were “supposed” to do. In theory, this taught us that other people’s feelings matter, and if you hurt them you can’t just expect someone to forgive you unless you say you’re sorry. But in practice, it merely taught us to go through the motions. You can argue that’s because things need to be kept simple for kids, as many of them are giving their first apologies soon after learning to talk at all.
So the bigger question is: how many of us were retaught to apologize later in life, once we were able to understand more about other people and the impact our actions have on them? Most of us never had a formal education about what an apology should be. That isn’t to say we didn’t learn about apologies, simply that for most of us, we’ve had to learn through trial and error, with lots of hurt feelings and misunderstandings on the way.
So let’s pause for a moment and think about the aspects of an apology that make you more likely to forgive someone. A lot of forgiveness has to do with what the other person actually did wrong, but we’re going to put that aside for now and focus just on the apology itself. Do you want them to sound sorry? Do you want them to promise never to do it again? Do you want a grand gesture to prove they didn’t mean to hurt you? Do you expect reparations?
There’s a lot of variance in personal preferences around apologies, and even within a single person, their expectations about an apology will change based on what the other person has done that’s made an apology necessary in the first place. Many people though, approach an apology thinking about how they want to express their remorse, rather than beginning with what they would want from an apology were the situations reversed.
There has been a lot of discussion over the years in social justice circles about the appropriate way to apologize for various mistakes or bad behavior, and like any conversation that happens primarily over the internet, these discussions have had very mixed results. Many of these discussions began hoping to address the unproductive ways people were approaching messages and feedback from minorities; people were responding by doubting the experiences that others were sharing, and getting upset over accusations of insensitivity. Unsurprisingly, discussions about proper apologies led to exactly more of that behavior because the internet, it turns out, is not an easy place to have nuanced discussions.
Today, we have the joy of being on the internet in a space that’s safe enough for us to explore and engage in conversation; where we can come together, not as warring factions interested only in proving the other wrong, but as one community, committed to reaching deeper understanding together. In fact, this exact exploration is encouraged by our principles, and we live our values by engaging in these discussions together so we can grow as a community. It’s uncomfortable to confront that inevitable future where we hurt someone we care about, or a group we want to advocate for, but the truth is we are all human beings, and we will all make mistakes, inevitably, over and over again, all throughout our lives. That’s okay! That’s us, sharing in the human experience together.
So what is it that has made these discussions of apologies online so controversial across the past few years? Just this simple idea:
Our apology is not about us.
The biggest, foundational principle in this approach is so simple, and yet can be hard to deeply connect with. We were taught to begin an apology with “I” in “I’m sorry,” so on some level, it feels like it’s about us; we’re the first thing we talk about. And yet, an apology usually comes about because we’ve hurt someone else, and we hope to ease that pain. Which, fundamentally, means it’s about them.
It naturally follows that if an apology isn’t about us, how we feel about what we did shouldn’t be the focus of it. What we meant, or how we intended something to come across, matters less than the impact it had. Saying “I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt you,” doesn’t negate, or even address the harm done.
Our apology is not about us.
It’s very easy to accept this on principle, but it’s much more difficult to execute it in real life, especially when confronted by the pain of someone we care about. We want them to know that we never would have hurt them intentionally, that we’re not a bad person, and we still care about them. But for an apology to work, for an apology to truly be about acknowledging someone else’s pain and our role in causing it, those feelings can’t be the focus.
Just because it’s not the focus in our apology doesn’t mean we can’t make space for it elsewhere. It can be very helpful to reach out to a support network to help deal with feelings of guilt or shame. Confronting the pain we’ve caused other people is a difficult and painful thing to do. However, that support shouldn’t come from the person we’re apologizing to; with them, in this situation, their feelings and their needs have to come first, otherwise it undermines the very apology we’re trying to give.
When someone prioritizes their own feelings in an apology, it can turn into guilt-ridden self-flagellation, where the apologizer is so caught up in their own feelings of guilt and remorse that they don’t have space to consider how their actions impacted another person. They know they did a bad thing, but they need you to know they’re not a bad person, that this is a one-time thing and they’ll never do it again. But if you ask them how they’re going to make sure they don’t hurt you again, their answers can lack understand of how they hurt you in the first place. Often times, when someone’s focusing on their own feelings in this way, if you ask them why what they did was wrong, they’re at a loss for details, or they have a very clear idea about why the thing they did was bad, and it’s entirely different from why you’re hurting.
Someone prioritizing their own feelings can also lead to the erroneous assertion that they’re not actually at fault: “I didn’t mean to hurt you, so you have to forgive me,” or “I didn’t mean to hurt you, so you shouldn’t be as hurt as you are.” Both of these stances deny responsibility for their own actions and the consequences of those actions. Whether or not someone intended harm has no bearing on what effect their actions actually had. Most people don’t intentionally hurt others. We generally want to be kind and hope people feel happy and safe with us. The uncomfortable truth is that it’s possible to both be a good person, and to hurt people we care about. Even operating with the best of intentions, we will inevitably make mistakes. Just because it’s a mistake doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to make things right.
So we have our very biggest foundational principle: when you give an apology, your apology is not about you. The next part is simple:
We have to understand why what we did or said hurt someone else.
Otherwise we will quickly find ourselves apologizing again in the future. And this is where our apology model is going to fork. There are two different paths ahead, depending on the circumstances. In a personal relationship, an apology that centers the other person’s feelings can sound like “I’m sorry. What do you need?” It clearly communicates remorse, and shows that you’re willing to put them first. Hopefully they can take the necessary time to respond thoughtfully about what they need from you to make things better, and together you can more toward healing.
But what if this isn’t a close friend or a loved one? What if it’s a colleague at work, or an acquaintance online? A heartfelt conversation about what that person needs from you isn’t always appropriate, or welcome.
In sociology, there is a principle that explains something important to our discussion: those who are oppressed must learn to understand those in power. It is a matter of survival for them; they don’t have a choice. But those in power have no such need to understand the oppressed. This was a phenomenon first documented in reference to slavery, but applies in basically every social circumstance where you have differences in power. What this means for our discussion today is simple: those of us granted privilege in our society are pretty likely to understand less about the underprivileged than they understand about us.
An example of this concept at work that we’ve all seen in the news lately: in our country, people of color, especially Black men, have to learn how to interact with police officers to try to keep situations from escalating; their lives depend on it. Police officers have no such motivation to learn how to deescalate situations; their lives do not depend on their willingness to do this because in confrontations with anyone, police are the ones with the power. Now the things we’re going to talk about next are way less life and death than that, but it’s a powerful illustration of these power dynamics at work.
So if we’re talking about privilege, it’s important to acknowledge that lack of privilege in one area does not negate privilege in another; nothing cancels anything out. Most people are some combination of privileged and underprivileged identities. Most people will sometimes be in a position of power, and sometimes be on the opposite end of the scale. Whenever we find ourselves in the position of privilege in an interaction, it’s pretty likely that we’ll make a mistake. It’s a sociological truth, like I said before.
Knowing that, it’s important to realize that it’s not our fault, that everyone is a product of the society we grew up in, and the trade-off for our privilege is that sometimes we have to put in a little extra work to get educated about people who are different from us. And this applies across the board: if you’re a white person talking to a person of color, a man talking to a woman, a straight person talking to a queer person, an abled person talking to a disabled person, these power dynamics apply. The intersection of all these identities is what makes interacting with other people so interesting, and also so complicated.
So why is all that important? Well, the result of those power dynamics we talked about is that people with marginalized identities encounter a lot of misunderstandings and well-intentioned slights. In line with that, those same people are pretty likely to have devoted a significant amount of their day-to-day life trying to educate others about their experiences, and explain why various sayings, requests, behaviors, and other things can be uncomfortable or upsetting.
With that in mind, it’s important to realize that when we are offering an apology in this kind of context, asking that person to explain to us what we did wrong, why it hurt them, or what they need from us is not the most effective way to mending that relationship. Asking someone to explain something to you, or tell you what you need to do, when that someone has already done an exhausting amount of unpaid, constant labor to educate others about simple facts of their existence is not putting their feelings and needs first. Which, as we talked about, is the biggest number one rule in an apology.
So what can we do?
Luckily, a significant number of people involved in social justice discourse have published books, articles, essays, blog posts, podcasts, video-blogs, and tweet threads about the impacts and consequences of interactions like these. Many of these resources have ideas and guidance for how people can learn and grow from these interactions, the trick is finding them. While it seems very obvious to the generally young, internet-savvy people that make up the majority of this discourse online, it can be less obvious to the people who need it most, that the answers are only a google search away. Knowing what to search for can be tricky, but often, asking a question straight to google is going to get you to a decent starting point.
Asking google and sifting through the several million search results until you find the answer to your question certainly takes more effort than asking a human directly for the answer, but asking someone else to do that work for you isn’t going to make anything better. Marginalized people, especially women of color, have repeatedly expressed frustration that they are berated for refusing to educate someone who just insulted them, while those same people decry the time and effort it would take to educate themselves. If your time has value, so does others’.
Many, many people have gotten burnt out trying to answer all those requests for help and guidance, unable to give anymore after a lifetime of giving. The solution for many has been to become paid educators, refusing to offer their time, attention, and resources without compensation. Nothing happens without work, either our own or someone else’s, and just like in any other area of life, if you want to have someone else help you – or do that work for you – it’s customary to pay for their services.
Many people have been put off by the hostility they’ve faced when asking someone with a marginalized identity to explain something to them because they didn’t have this context; their lack of knowledge that caused the problem in the first place also prevented them from knowing why someone would respond negatively to a request for help.
Because of this, many social justice advocates online talk about the importance of widening your circle, of making an effort to include a wide variety of people in your daily interactions and friend groups, and when that’s not possible, making sure to seek out the voices you aren’t normally exposed to. Looking for published materials authored by people who aren’t like you is a very good way to expand your perspective.
It’s also a good idea to go to the social media platforms you already use and follow people of color, queer people, disabled people, all of these educators, writers, and activists who have a perspective you can’t get on your own. The more we’re exposed to other viewpoints and experiences, the less likely we are to walk into situations where we’re going to need to apologize, because we’ll already know why certain things will cause issues. If the problem is education, we can educate ourselves proactively by exposing ourselves to as many different perspectives as possible.
This leads us to our final principle for an apology: knowing that it’s merely a starting point.
An apology is a promise to grow as a person based on new understanding, and a commitment to do better next time.
This is why sometimes we apologize with the best of intentions, unaware of our own insincerity. Because we’re very remorseful, we never want to do that thing again, but we just don’t have time for all that work of listening and self-reflection that’s necessary to reach true understanding. And without that work to get educated and make changes, our apology never comes to fruition. We’ve fulfilled the basic social contract we internalized as children, and yet our apology rings hollow as soon as time passes and we have the same shortcomings, and are just as likely to make those same mistakes again and again.
A true apology is uncomfortable because it requires us to look honestly at ourselves in a moment of causing harm and not shy away; to be willing to embrace the idea of ourselves as flawed human beings, and accept that sometimes we will hurt people, sometimes we will make mistakes, and sometimes we won’t be the hero in the story.
As we navigate difficult situations with loved ones and strangers, we can challenge ourselves to look at ourselves in wholeness, with all of our strengths and virtues, as well as our flaws and weaknesses. If we can see ourselves this way, it will help us approach apologies with the humility to put another’s pain before our own, with the thoughtfulness to listen and understand their perspective, and with the knowledge that an apology is only the first step on a path to personal growth.