We Suck at Apologies

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Several incidents in the past few weeks, both public and private, have led me to the conclusion that we all suck at apologies when we have offended people. I’d like to try and start a conversation to see if we can fix that.  I feel like I am qualified to give advice here, as I spent my 20’s as an angry and often offensive guy, who had to apologize quite a bit.  Because of this, I’ve learned a little of what works and what doesn’t.

Let’s start with a premise.  You said something that offended someone somewhere. They are angry, and they have called you out on it in some fashion.  (It’s vague, but every example I could come up with might have been offensive.)

“Why should I apologize, what I said (or did) was right?”

This here is the major problem we have with apologizing. We think that apologizing means that we are saying “I was wrong, and you were right.” It doesn’t.  When you offend someone, you have damaged your relationship with them. Whether you are an individual offending another individual or a company who offended a potential market, your actions have damaged the relationship.  The true purpose of an apology is to try and fix the damage in the relationship between you and the offended party. That should be your goal.

“I didn’t mean to offend you.”

Actions have consequences, intentions do not matter.  Actually, it would be better to say, intentions can mitigate consequences, but they cannot erase them.  Suppose I hit a young man with my car. That my intention was to drive home has no impact on the consequence that the young man’s leg is broken. Now the fact that I was soberly driving home, and did my best to swerve out of the way can maybe mitigate what the law says about my culpability, but it cannot fix the man’s leg.

So, good on ya, that you didn’t want to offend anyone. Unless you’re a deliberate provocateur I don’t assume anyone believes you did.  If you were deliberately offending people, I assume you don’t have any interest in apologizing.  So if you are apologizing, shut up about your intentions. You just sound like you are trying to excuse yourself.

“I don’t see what you are getting so upset about.”

This is a shitty, defensive way of saying “I don’t understand how I offended you.” That’s fine.  It is perfectly acceptable to not understand how you have been offensive. If you were able to wrap your mind perfectly around the thoughts and considerations of the offended party, you probably wouldn’t have taken the action that offended them. It’s perfectly fine to ask for clarification and an explanation. Just try not to phrase that request like an asshole.

  • “I’m having trouble wrapping my mind around this, can you explain where you’re coming from?” Good.
  • “Can you tell me why a person like you is offended by this?” – Bad.

“I can’t have said something homophobic, I have quite a few gay friends.”

Repeat after me: There is no such thing as a “ghetto pass.” That you have gay/female/minority friends does not mean you can’t say homophobic/sexist/racist things.  It means that you probably shouldn’t say them, and perhaps you should check to see if you still have those friends.

“You’re overly sensitive.”

This encapsulates a lot of things but at the core of it you are denying the reasonableness of the person taking offense.  The thought here being there are thoughts that while controversial, reasonable people can talk about without taking offense.  There are two problems with this.

The first problem with the reasonableness trope is that it assumes offense is an intellectual response.  It’s not, it’s an emotional response. Therefore reasonableness of the offense is irrelevant as offense in this case is not a product of the reason.  You can tell someone to stop being sad because their life is overall great, but if a personal tragedy has occurred, you can’t stop them from being sad. Likewise whether or not it is reasonable to be offended is irrelevant in the face of actual offense.

The second problem with reasonableness is that it doesn’t matter. Because reasonableness is part of the right/wrong discussion. “It is not reasonable to be offended over this, therefore you are wrong and I am right.”  –which is irrelevant, because apologies aren’t about right and wrong, they’re are about repairing the damage to the relationship.

“140 characters/email/IM is not enough to have a proper conversation about this.”

You’re right. Happy?  Now stop wasting time and move to a higher bandwidth form of communication.

“That’s not what I meant.”

Okay, this is a tough one, and it’s different from “I didn’t mean to be offensive.”  It happens when what they think you said and what you think you said are two different things.  It could be because of someone mishearing you. It’s also perfectly possible that someone is reading into what you have said or done, and giving it a context that makes it offensive to them. It’s also possible that you were not communicating well.

Again it’s time to remember what’s important, fixing the damage.  So apologize first, get acceptance that you want to fix the damage, then start to talk about the misunderstanding.  Ask what language you could have use to make your intended meaning come through.

So how should you apologize?

  1. Start with “I am sorry I offended you.” No qualifiers.  No “If I offended anyone.” You’re sorry that the relationship is damaged and that you caused the damage.  Start from there.
  2. Seek an understanding of what you did that caused offense, and acknowledge it.
  3. No excuses. Unless you were kidnapped, drugged and slammed down in front of a keyboard or phone, you are responsible for whatever you did to offend someone.  Even if it is a “not what I meant” incident. You’re responsible at least in part for the misunderstanding.
  4. Don’t apologize angry. When we are criticized, it’s easy to get angry and emotional ourselves, and therefore get in the way of a real apology.  If the criticism you receive makes you angry or defensive, then wait and calm down.  Very little relationship damage can be fixed with anger.

There you have it, apology advice from someone who’s had to do a lot of it. It’s not about winning an argument, it’s about saving a relationship.

8 thoughts on “We Suck at Apologies

  1. The advice I use for myself is that the I’s in an apology should always outnumber the You’s. It’s subtle, but 9 times out of 10, when the I’s outnumber the you’s, it is a lot less offensive of an apology.

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  2. This is a very thought provoking piece. It is written with the insight of a “psychology major”. It gets to the crux of the focus of the apology which is how to discuss what matters the most for successful interactions. I’m very proud of you Terrence.

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  3. Okay, I am going to go out on a limb here and be “that guy” for a moment.

    In most cases, we want to “save the relationship”, but I would contend that we can’t possibly control other peoples reactions to the the things we do or say.

    Regardless of any intent or lack thereof on my part, the reaction to anything I say (whatever that reaction may be) is completely outside of my control.

    Granted, we can usually predict how reasonable people are typically going to react to most types of statements, but in casual conversation, we generally don’t spend a great deal of time considering what we say before we say it. More to the heart of the matter is the fact that saying “I am sorry I offended you.” often really means “I am sorry you were offended.” It is a subtle difference, but an important one.

    I don’t have a problem with offending people who get offended unreasonably.

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  4. I’m not sure if you are talking about Flash or not. But, it seems to me that Adobe is intentionally trying to drive people away from Flash. I don’t mean to be cynical, but to where, away from Adobe?

    From the new Creative Suite, I see only Photoshop and Illustrator having any significant creative value to me.

    and I am not sure I like the direction Photoshop is going either.

    …But, we can still be friends.

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  5. There is a great book called “Drop the Pink Elephant” that, among other things, presents the three R’s for dealing with apology-worthy events: Regret, Reason & Remedy. That breaks down to expressing that you feel bad about an outcome, you explain how it happened and then you detail the steps you’ll take to avoid it in the future.

    It really does provide the best outline for cutting off criticism and preventing a situation from spinning out of control – at least, it does if you are sincere.

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