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A sorry apology

Today, I adopt as my column an excellent article written by my daughter, Ivy.  She is a lawyer and mother of three and married to Benedict, also a lawyer:

As long as we interact with humans, we will commit mistakes and offenses for which we need to apologize. It’s necessary to maintain civility and restore good relations.

How we apologize is strongly influenced by the weight and meaning we assign to it. It can range from the trivial to the significant.

It’s easy to say sorry for simple things like bumping into someone (“Oops, sorry.”) or for failing to hear someone’s question (“Sorry, what did you say?). We tend to be more polite to strangers and acquaintances, so it’s not a big deal to apologize for small actions that don’t really matter to us.

We also say sorry as customary expressions dictated by the occasion—“I’m sorry to bother you, but can you help me?”, “I’m sorry to hear that”, or “I’m sorry for your loss”.

Sometimes, an apology is given as part of customer service, like the cashier who tells you, “Sorry to keep you waiting.” We both know it’s not really her fault but she tries to smooth over our inconvenience and she hopes we appreciate her effort by not becoming annoyed.

Generally, the less emotionally invested we are with another person, the easier it is to apologize for the inconsequential. But as our relationships become more complicated and entwined, the apology morphs into a volatile tool instead of a simple statement of remorse.

An apology is a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure yet this simple definition is often violated by the common ways we say sorry to each other.

The habit of apology starts from early childhood. A parent demands that we apologize to a playmate for hitting him. We learn that we should say sorry upon demand so we can put the incident behind us. No acknowledgment of our fault.  Sorry is just a way to end the issue.

If we also endure a tiresome tirade of our shortcomings (“How could you do such a thing? I am so disappointed in you.”), we feel ashamed and so we apologize to stop the attack. We say sorry to appease our disapproving parent and hopefully regain their affection.

“If you shame someone in a lesser position of power, it can lead that person to conform, obey, and give the obligatory apology. But shame will not inspire reflection, self-observation, and personal growth. These are essentially self-loving tasks that do not flourish in an atmosphere of self-depreciation and self-blame.” (Harriet Lerner PhD, Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, 2017)

Our past greatly influences how we view an apology. Inextricably tied to our past is the formation of our self-esteem, which determines if we will even apologize.

One survey found that people with a high self-esteem are more likely to apologize (Scientific American). One explanation is that a confident person has a healthy perception of himself so he knows that if he inadvertently hurt someone, he just made a mistake. Since everyone makes mistakes, this omission is just one aspect of his personality that he can fix, so he can easily apologize and move on.

In contrast, an insecure person is afraid that if he apologizes, his mistake will define him completely. (“If I say sorry for neglecting my wife, that means I am a bad husband.”) So he won’t apologize and he can dissociate himself from his misdeeds and maintain his perfect persona. The same is true for narcissists. They won’t apologize so they can maintain their vanity.

Honest, humble, and conscientious people apologize more. So do those who are prone to guilt and shame. But agreeable people don’t necessarily apologize easily. (Patrick Dunlop, Science Direct, 2015)

Females apologize often because they perceive themselves committing more offenses for which they need to apologize.  While males are hardly apologetic because they have a higher threshold for what is offensive behavior. But both genders apologize in proportion to their perceived offenses. (NCBI or National Center for Biotechnology Institute)

High income strongly correlates with apologies. “The more you earn, the more you apologize and vice-versa. The more you apologize, the more you earn.” (perfectapology.com)

Married people are almost twice as likely to apologize than unmarried people (perfectapology.com). It is joked that this is due to the high cost of divorce or separation. But relationship experts note that when the wife has an unresolved hurt caused by the husband’s behavior, she withdraws her support for him. This can manifest in many ways that can disrupt the husband’s daily life and well-being. Many husbands know this feeling of abandonment and neglect.

Religion also plays a role in the likelihood of an apology. Catholics believe in the act of contrition. While others may be influenced by their custom and do not bother to apologize or view it as unnecessary.

Culture also dictates whether an apology is given. The Japanese apologize more often than Americans. (William Maddux, INSEAD, Cultural Differences in the Function and Meaning of Apologies)

But some people just don’t think that they are (ever) at fault, so they will never apologize, especially if they consider the apology an admission of guilt. There’s no use waiting for them to say sorry.

“Sorry!” (Not really)

It’s most frustrating when we receive an unsatisfactory apology, especially when we (always) feel rightfully aggrieved.

There are the justified apologies I call sorry but because they apologize but explain why they did the wrongful act. In effect, such an apology dilutes their accountability and even seems to transfer the blame to the offended party.

“Sorry I screamed at you but I only did that because you were annoying me.”

“Sorry, but you made me do it.”

An insidious kind is the non-apology where they say sorry for how we reacted to their behavior:

“I’m sorry you got upset when I interrupted you.”

“Sorry if you were offended by my joke.”

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