Seems to be the hardest word

A lot of debate around the online world seems to be about apologies. Demands for them, refusals to give them, analysis of them when they do come, acceptance or rejection of them, debate about the wording, and further apologies or further rejections.

It’s natural to see something powerful in an apology. We all yearn to be heard, and fear invisibility or the powerlessness of not being listened to. And an apology is like an affirmation of our sense of self, of what we believe. We state the way that we believe the world is; and an apology is an acquiescence or affirmation of that.

I tend to think one of the reasons apologies are so hard to come by is that their meaning is fuzzy. Does “I’m sorry” entail taking responsibility, is it an admission of fault or guilt? Is it merely an expression of regret? “I’m sorry you feel that way” is usually seen as a half-apology at best. But even if we get a more full apology – “I’m sorry for my actions”, what does that mean? Does that necessarily imply responsibility, or merely regret? Are you apologising for your intent? Does your intent even matter? Or if you are apologising for the effect, does that mean your apology is divorced from your intent? 

I think the reason people often baulk at apologising, is that they aren’t clear on exactly what kind of apology is desired, or acceptable. 

We are often let down by apologies when they do come, because they don’t address the issues we hope them to, in the terms we want. Our need or desire doesn’t match what the apologiser sees as appropriate. So we get angrier.

Or maybe the apology covers the ground we hoped it would. We applaud it. Good apology. Nicely apologised. Maybe a tiny part of us wonders whether they “got it” or whether they just happened to say the right phrases, to capture the vibe they knew we wanted. Was it genuine remorse, or good PR?

I am thinking more and more that things would be simpler if we avoided the whole apology question altogether. That instead of asking for an apology, we actually stated what we wanted the other person to address. Or clarify; often we are hoping to understand their actions. 

I’m not saying an apology can’t be heartfelt and help mend a relationship. It can; if nothing more than for its ability to say “I’m willing to put aside my pride for a moment and reach out to you.” But it’s not really where true understanding lies. Too often it just makes us more confused.

I think we have a wish for simple answers, that the hurt inside us can be answered by a simple expression of apology. That in some narrative structure, we can go from point A to point B in our character development by achieving that closure; the other person demonstrates that they have learned their lesson and we are healed and we all move on happy.

In real life it’s not so simple. Apologies cloud the water, they frustrate us and they dissatisfy us by not coming when they should and not being addressed in the terms we yearn for. People don’t learn a simple lesson and amend their ways; people are more complex than that. Something you say to someone won’t change their mind in the heat of the argument; more likely they will chew it over for five years before shifting their point of view, based on a hundred similar discussions. 

And anyway, who among us really understands what any of us ever means?

Anyhow, that’s my theory on apologies for this week. If it offends anyone, I’m deeply sorry 😀

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4 Responses to Seems to be the hardest word

  1. Apologies don’t really change anything. “Sorry I stood on your foot.” Maybe I am, but it doesn’t make your foot better. When my kids apologise, they also have to ask, ‘What can I do to help fix the result of my actions?’ (though possibly not in those exact words). At least that way they have to take responsibility for what they did, not just admit that they did it.

  2. sajbrfem says:

    An interesting topic, and the first thing I thought of too was what I expect from my children regarding their mistakes or hurtful actions. I no longer demand that they appologise, but instead retell how it seems the injured party is feeling about the offence and ask what they could do to improve the situation. It works much better for everyone I think, because you defuse the need for defensiveness and blame and move straight to empathy and repair. Maybe we need to care for our internet selves and collegues as we do for our children, we seem to be a whole new way of communicating after all.

  3. Great post Ben – I’m a big believer in being our authentic selves & making no apology for that. Of course if we are out of line & overstepped the mark then sure apologise if you know it was hurtful & untrue for you. But if apologizing is about keeping the peace & not being authentic then people will like you or they won’t & if you offended someone by being you that’s their problem not yours! I offend peeps all the time but I won’t ever apologise for being me 🙂 thanks for sharing x

  4. Well “sorry” but “methodist-episcopal” is considered the hardest English word to speak. While it is true that it is in fact two words, these two words together are used by certain medical professionals in diagnosis of both head injury and psychological conditions. Despite that, for my money, “floccinaucinihilipilification” (the act of describing or regarding something as unimportant) is what I consider the hardest word.

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