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Anatomy of a real apology
By Orson Scott Card December 9, 2010

I'm sorry, but when you look at what happened you'll see that I was completely justified. I'm sorry, but it wasn't my fault at all.

All right, OK, I'm sorry. I'm so-o-o sorry. Excu-u-u-u-uze me.

I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings. I'm sorry I got you so upset. If I did anything wrong, I'm truly sorry for it.

All right, whatever I did, I apologize for it. Satisfied? If you don't accept my apology by Friday, then consider it withdrawn. I'll apologize if you apologize, it's not like you were perfect.

Have you ever heard these apologies? Ever used any of them?

These don't even rise to the level of fake apologies. They are, in fact, refusals to apologize: You want me to say I'm sorry? I'll say it, but I won't, not for one second, mean it.

You think I should apologize, but I didn't do anything wrong, and so I'm not going to humble myself in front of you. I'm not going to make myself lower than you, when I wasn't even wrong.

If there is no admission of fault, if there is no contrition, no expression of regret for wrong actions, then there is no apology.

Oddly enough, most of us find it much easier to apologize at work or at school, because we are part of an organized hierarchy. Our boss or teacher is already above us, and so it is much easier to say the words of apology because we don't feel that we're being put down. We really are under them.

It's harder when it's a customer or client or patient, because we often feel ourselves to be above them. How many lawsuits have taken place because someone did wrong or made a mistake, yet was too proud to admit it openly and express genuine remorse to the person offended or endangered?

For many people, the hardest apologies of all are the ones needed by family members.

Deborah Tannen, author of the very wise book I Only Say This Because I Love You, asks us to envision our family relationships on a Cartesian coordinate system -- an x-y axis.

Let's say the x-axis is a line representing closeness or intimacy on end, distance or estrangement on the other.

The y-axis, then, has equality at one end, and hierarchy -- the idea that one person is above or in charge of another -- at the opposite end.

If a family relationship moves from closeness to distance, it hurts. But it also hurts when our position in a relationship moves from equality to subordination.

Using one of Tannen's examples, let's say a husband is supposed to mail a letter for his wife. She tells him how important it is that it be postmarked today. But the next morning, there it is on the seat of the car.

The husband says, "Oh, I forgot, sorry, I'll mail it today."

It's an apology, right? But it's not a proportionate apology -- it's perfunctory. Not even as regretful as if he had said, "Oops. I blew it, didn't I?"

That would actually have been more of an apology than a mere "sorry" in passing, because saying, "Oops, I blew it," admits that the consequences may be serious, and he is responsible for causing them.

By contrast, "Sorry, I'll mail it today," admits responsibility but minimizes the wrongdoing. It assumes that there is an easy remedy and nobody should be upset about it.

But the wife is upset. Not just because the letter wasn't sent, but because the husband's failure to fulfil his promise feels like a sign that her needs are unimportant to him, that he doesn't care about her, that he is distant.

So she gets angry. "You're sorry? That makes it better somehow?"

Here's where the argument gets crazy. He apologized, and yet she's not satisfied. What more does she want?

Well, what she wants is an apology -- which he thinks he's already given -- but in fact he did not show enough contrition to reassure her that he does care about her, that he really regrets letting her down. His offhanded apology is actually more hurtful to her than the unmailed letter.

But her insistence that he show greater contrition seems to him like she wants to put him down, that because he made a simple human mistake -- forgetting an errand, like she's never done that! -- she wants to place herself above him in the relationship.

It feels to him like a power play. She won't be satisfied until he grovels.

The wife is worried about where they are on the closeness-distance axis and needs reassurance, while the husband is worried about where they are on the equality-hierarchy axis, and refuses to accept a subordinate position.

This example could easily be reversed, of course. Wives can be just as worried about hierarchy as husbands, and husbands can be just as worried about closeness as wives.

Brothers and sisters also negotiate constantly for one position or another on both axes.

Often all that's needed is to realize what the other person is afraid of, and reassure them. And, of course, it helps if you can remain calm while you do it.

"I know that letter was important to you, and I really blew it. How can I make it up to you?"

"Everybody forgets things, I know that. I'm not condemning you. But this letter was important to me, and it hurts me that you forgot."

Wouldn't it be nice if we always had someone to write a script for us? But nothing stops us from writing a script for ourselves. And even if we've already had an argument, nothing stops us from going back and revising our prior remarks.

"I'm sorry that I got so angry. Here's what I wish I had said."

Apology: sincere admission of responsibility and confession of regret. It's one of our best tools to move a relationship to where it needs to be.

Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card

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