Apologize When You’ve Done Something Wrong

On Facebook a friend shared the following post about apologies from the Instagram account of FeministVoice (December 21, 2016).

“lately i’ve been replacing my ‘i’m sorry’s with ‘thank you’s’ like instead of ‘sorry i’m late’ i’ll say ‘thanks for waiting for me’, or instead of ‘sorry for being such a mess’ i’ll say ‘thank you for loving me and caring about me unconditionally’ and it’s not only shifted the way i think and feel about myself but also improved my relationships with others who now get to receive my gratitude instead of my negativity.”

As of this writing, 58 people have liked the post and 54 have shared it.


“How do you know when you’ve heard a sincere apology?” is a question I’ve been asking for a future episode of my podcast, QuOTeD (now available). So the suggestion to substitute our sorries with our gratitude struck me a little funny. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a load of crap.

The impulse to rein in unnecessary apologies is understandable. But broadly replacing them with gratitude feels false. It discounts why we apologize.

What tells the truth? What connects? What heals? According to the handful of random people who responded to my question so far, this is exactly the purpose of an apology. It

Tells the truth.

Apologies move us through conflict. They are not the cause of our low self-esteem or the reason for negativity in our lives. Whereas these things might be exacerbated when we hide from our imperfections instead of embracing them, which an apology can help us do.

Sincere apologies tell the truth, connect and heal.

Unlike an apology, gratitude does not necessarily acknowledge the reality of the harmed party (i.e., the truth). In the case of the above post, gratitude is primarily concerned with the comfort of the offender who wants to avoid conflict. So, instead of facing how our actions may have negatively affected another, it’s easier to conflate apologies with self-hatred or attach them to our critics who demand perfection. Or we might have personal issues that make apologies difficult. Now “self-care” gets to mean that we should be overly concerned about how much we apologize. Be careful with your pruning. It turns out that the words “I’m sorry” do matter. When wronged, people want to hear those words and they notice when they don’t. In some cases, they remember these instances forever.

Not to overblow the issue of tardiness, thanking me for waiting for you does nothing to acknowledge my reality, except to say that I did wait some undetermined amount of time – which you have deemed trivial. This fact is divorced from whatever might have been going on for me logistically, emotionally or whatever (i.e, my reality). Maybe I was irritated. In this case, a pre-emptive “thank you” becomes a means to manage and control my response. That hardly sounds like genuine gratitude to me. Just like corporate speak, it aims to redefine my reality without consulting me. It’s creepy. It also glosses over what is being communicated. Situations vary, but you’re being 15 minutes late tells me that I do not matter. Someone is a few minutes late and now I don’t matter? To clarify, I know that I do matter. And it’s why I can recognize it when I’m being treated as if I don’t.

It might be more helpful to ask “What does it mean to honor someone?” At minimum wouldn’t we show up on time and be fully present once there? The habitually late who want to see themselves as free spirits as opposed to as passive aggressive control freaks who can’t think of a better way to claim their power will cringe to hear that honoring your word by being on time matters. Your calendar might try to prove helplessness. It is crammed with soccer games, good causes, appointments, even double-bookings. My first impulse is to make reassurances. We’ve all been late. Nobody is perfect. But this is off the topic. Instead, I refer you to this unapologetic article about tardiness in which self-respect requires directly and gently confronting those who keep us waiting.

People who talked to me for QuOTeD also tended to want apologies to be coupled with change. Does being grateful accomplish this? No. But it does suggest what I can expect from you in the future. The lack of an apology indicates that no change is needed. Moreover, what you don’t say is up for interpretation. When you change the subject (i.e., say “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry”) I might conclude that under (your) terms of this relationship it is not acceptable to voice my dissatisfaction. I am to be silent about feeling annoyed and disrespected. This is the definition of dysfunction.

What you do say is also up for interpretation because you are not being straight, which has been the problem all along. Thanking me for something I didn’t willingly give you is another way to tell me that you’re in charge and that I can expect more of the same. You’ll continue to be some kind of lovable pocket-picking airhead that is incapable of anticipating traffic and I’ll play the supporting actor who serves to absolve you of your guilt by “accepting you as you are” at the expense of my own dignity.

To put it in the harshest terms, your self-love is buttressed by my self-hatred.

Apologies such as “sorry I’m late” sound hollow because they’re commonly offered without pausing enough to mean what we say. They’re filled with clichés about (self-imposed) emergencies, (predictable) traffic jams and (supposedly) lofty priorities. But instead of dropping the shallow apology, what about deepening it? What about just being sincere? What about intentionally honoring people? For me, it’s not that I’m incapable of getting my mother’s birthday card in the mail on time, which (it pains me to say) I don’t always do. It’s that I have never thought about it in these terms: Honoring her. What if I did? Might that change my behavior without perfection becoming the unreachable goal that constantly nags me? In any case, if you’re always late and don’t intend to make any adjustments, no apology is necessary. At some point it’s on me to decide whether I want to continue to make plans with someone who is unreliable or fill-in-the-blank, but that’s another story and again one that is addressed in this article.

But what about the apologies that really are driven by insecurities and self-hatred? For example, I don’t need to apologize to the plumber because my house is a mess. However, nor do I need to thank him or her for excusing it. And as mentioned before, these aren’t really apologies anyway as they aren’t intended to empathize with another person by diving into their reality. They’re just words intended to ease our own discomfort. They’re social niceties. Is that the end of the world? Regardless, no one will care if we ditch them.

Mrs. Roosevelt apologizes to students for the disarray of the White House rooms which are being prepared for air raids.[Collins, Marjory, 1912-1985, photographer Washington, D.C. 1942 Feb. Library of Congress. Under the auspices of the Bureau of University Travel and the National Capital School Visitors' Council, over 200 high school students chosen for their intellectual alertness visited Washington for a week. Mrs. Roosevelt apologizes to students for the disarray of the White House rooms which are being prepared for air raids.]

On the other hand, what if you ruin my favorite sweater? Are you going to apologize and try to make it right? Or are you going to thank me for not being materialistic and accepting that you’re no Martha Stewart in the laundry room? I’d hate to think of what a person like this would say should I find them screwing my husband! These are extreme examples and probably not the point of the post. But it’s helpful to see where the logic takes us. It breaks down with a capful of Clorox.

Keep it real, people. Say you’re sorry when you’ve done something wrong.

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