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On apologies

Apologies are something I still have trouble with from time to time.  I’m going to be prescriptive in this article, though, because I think I’ve learned a thing or two about the right and wrong ways to do it, thanks to some of the people I’ve hurt who have cared enough to tell me how they felt.

I was taught from a young age that the words “I’m sorry” were the cure for hurt feelings, whether they resulted from harsh words, physical pain or thoughtlessness.  While I learned the ritual of it from this training, I had to learn separately what it really meant, and develop the emotional aptitude to put it into practice.

I wonder whether this ritualization of apology makes it more difficult for us to learn to do it properly.  We seem to confuse the language of apology with the feeling of regret, or the act of reconciliation.  Apologies are only words, unless they successfully convey regret for our actions, and a desire to do better in the future.

For example, consider the phenomenon of the non-apology apology.  This happens when someone feels the need to fulfill the ritual of apology with words, but doesn’t seem to regret their actions or wish to truly reconcile.  They may recognize that the other party is hurt, but not accept responsibility for it.  They may conditionalize the apology so as to avoid even acknowledging the hurt.  They may even blame the injured party for their own hurt, while still participating in the ritual and satisfying their trained impulses.

“I’m sorry if…”

This type of non-apology fails to acknowledge the consequences of our actions.  Maybe we hurt someone, or maybe we didn’t.  Who is to say?  In the hypothetical scenario wherein we hurt someone, we suppose we would be sorry.  Who’s to say?  When it’s clear that someone has been hurt, and that our actions caused them to be hurt, a conditional apology is tantamount to a denial.

  • I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings
  • I’m sorry if I crossed a line
  • I’m sorry if I was an asshat

“I’m sorry, but…”

These “apologies” are really excuses in disguise.  They justify our actions, and thereby absolve us of responsibility.  They fail to recognize that, regardless of what our intentions were, we hurt someone.  It’s sometimes appropriate to offer an explanation, but that’s a separate matter from the apology, and the two don’t mix.  Attaching an explanation to an apology dilutes the apology to the point of meaninglessness.

  • I’m sorry, but I didn’t mean it (that way)
  • I’m sorry, but I was only joking
  • I’m sorry, but I’m just speaking my mind
  • I’m sorry, but you must have misunderstood me
  • I’m sorry, but I don’t know what I did wrong

“I’m sorry [that] you…”

These insidious non-apologies deflect responsibility away from ourselves and onto the injured party.  They imply that they hurt themselves, and that our actions were incidental.  They often focus on the symptoms of distress, rather than the cause.

  • I’m sorry you feel that way
  • I’m sorry you are upset
  • I’m sorry you were offended

A proper apology

  • Validates the hurt
  • Takes responsibility for having caused it, regardless of intent
  • Expresses regret for one’s actions

It will also convey a desire to avoid repeating the same mistake in the future.  I think this is usually implicit, though, and doesn’t need to be stated unless it requires clarification.  If you do something wrong and clearly regret it, it will be inferred that you’ll avoid doing it in the future.

Apologies are easiest when the mistake is a simple one: a trodden foot, a late appearance, a forgotten courtesy.  The injury and the cause are both obvious in these cases.  We usually get into trouble where there is a more complex emotional conflict involved.  In such situations, we’re not always sure what happened or why, and may need to explore that before we can even begin to apologize.  This may require cooperation with the injured party, which can be especially difficult in a conflict situation.

Nevertheless, even in an emotional conflict, it can help to draw parallels with a simple apology.  It’s been years since I last made an HTML table, but here goes:

If you stepped on a foot If you hurt someone with words
Don’t say… Do say… Don’t say… Do say…
I’m sorry, but
I was just trying to pass
I’m sorry
for stepping on your foot
I’m sorry, but
I was just joking
I’m sorry
for telling that joke
I’m sorry if
I stepped on your foot
I’m sorry
I stepped on your foot
I’m sorry if
I hurt your feelings
I’m sorry
I hurt your feelings
I’m sorry you
were hurt by my foot
I’m sorry
I stepped on your foot
I’m sorry you
were offended by what I said
I’m sorry
I spoke to you that way

Of course, this is still “just” language, and needs to be supported by authenticity of expression (i.e. you need to believe it for the magic words to work).  An apology may be only the last step of a long process of understanding and reconciliation.

Still, watching our words helps us to notice when we’ve got it wrong, which may be half the battle.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

July 20, 2009 at 22:17

Posted in Uncategorized

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13 Responses

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  1. This reminds me of another common idiom which has always bugged me:

    “I’m sorry to hear that.”

    I realize it’s just an idiom, and it seems to be widely accepted as a way to console someone for a regrettable situation (like the death of a loved one). But it’s a strange phrase. I interpret it in a literal sense as the speaker saying they’re sorry that someone *told* them about their feelings, not that they regret the cause of those feelings. I try to avoid this phrase.

    Christopher Armstrong

    July 20, 2009 at 23:28

    • I’m not a native, but I always find English language (and culture) pretty “cold” in a sense of “don’t tell me about your life”.

      When I’m in US or UK I always find myself confused because every time someone greets me with “How are you?” or “What’s up?” – I need to remind myself that in fact he’ll look at me like if I’m crazy if I dare to share my feelings :)

      btw. great article. I wrote about exactly this subject in Polish in February but I failed to make it that clear. If you put it on wikisource or clarify the license I’ll be happy to translate it to Polish :)


      July 20, 2009 at 23:54

      • When people ask me those kinds of things I always share because:

        1) That’s who I am, if people don’t like me, then that’s fine but I won’t pretend to be someone else.
        2) You have to be the change you want to see in the world.
        3) Only once people get full responses will they stop asking daft rhetorical questions.


        July 21, 2009 at 02:38

        • P.S. I’m British and I annoy my fellow Brits, damn right.


          July 21, 2009 at 02:39

    • recently i rang a friend to tell of the tragic death of a mutual friend

      and he closed the conversation with

      “well, bad talking to you i guess”

      it was very true, and a lot more honest – that this hadn’t been a “good” conversation at all – than so many things we say

      language is a strange and complex beast


      July 22, 2009 at 02:33

  2. Spot on Matt.


    Chris Smart

    July 21, 2009 at 06:15

  3. Excellent article, Matt, I’m definitely sharing it around. Thanks for writing it!


    July 22, 2009 at 00:10

  4. Nice post, Matt. I just had to give an apology a few minutes ago, and think I used some of those deflectors. I’m happy, however, that I was genuine–whether the person I apologized to was aware of it, I realized I didn’t want to “do that” again. On being the recipient of many apologies, I love your logical breakdown and found it to be sound and true. Thanks!


    July 22, 2009 at 02:48

  5. Sorry about your blog post.

    Scott Ritchie

    July 22, 2009 at 04:26

  6. I amuse the bot in Ubuntu IRC channe>
    It send me a link to here.
    I think the bot is very clever.
    Though it doesn’t think so


    October 12, 2010 at 04:26

  7. […] un bel post di un paio di anni fa del nostro CTO Matt Zimmerman riguardo lo scusarsi ed ho trovato che esiste […]

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