There is a great deal to Tom’s post that I feel I want to write on but for now I will constrain myself to the issue of apologising.

Growing up effectively without a father, I had to form my own moral and ethical basis from scratch. I figured out rules on apologising, both for when I would apologise and for acceptance of an apology. I’m not talking about that off-the-cuff “sorry” we all might say as an issue of politeness should we bump into somebody or accidentally tread on their toes. In some ways, it is the difference between that kind of polite apology and the thought-through expression of regret that guides the very rules I am going to lay out. They have served me well and shown the test of time.

An apology is an expression that we make in the hope of adjusting someone’s attitude towards us (even that polite “sorry” could be said to be so). If we consider ourselves honest people who would like our word to mean something, then we do not have hopes of changing how someone views us unless such an attitude adjustment would be accurate.

  1. Be clear about what it is you are apologising for.
  2. Only apologise if, under the same circumstances in the future, you intend to behave differently.
  3. Only apologise when you have felt that you have wronged someone. This comes last because it can be both the easiest and the hardest part. It is disingenuous to want to change someone else’s emotions (dislike/like or hurt/calm) when our own emotions are not engaged.

Rule 1 is vital. You upset somebody by expressing your views? Their feelings are not your responsibility, only the manner in which you expressed them is. Expressing views is only something to apologise for if you accept their right to censor your way of thinking and your freedom of expression. You beat them at pool in front of their friends? Only if you believe you should have cheated on your attempts to win is that something to be sorry about but maybe laughing at him afterwards is something you will change in yourself in future.

When apologising, make it clear to the person that you wronged exactly what it is you are apologising for. This helps them to understand the sincerity of your apology and opens the possibility of an honest discussion of what you are not apologising for.

Rule 2 is not a promise: it is an intent – we are not perfect. However, if you ever find yourself needing to apologise for the same offence twice, you really do need to work on change within, or re-think whether you might do it again. Sometimes, we must admit to ourselves that we would behave in an unpleasant manner again, in which case an apology would be meaningless and would compound our misdeed. It can be hard but at least honest to say to somebody “I know I behaved badly but that’s just me at times, so there is no point me apologising about it.”

An increasing but damaging social trend is to apologise just because we know we have hurt somebody’s feelings (or, as I often wonder with online communication, they simply say we have as a way to manipulate us). Our feelings are our responsibility, nobody else’s. That works the same for everybody else too. Apologising just because somebody indicates they have hurt feelings must be resisted. Similarly, the expectation we might have of wanting someone else to take our feelings into account when they express an opinion needs to be corrected. In case you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about everyone “needing to grow a thicker skin”.

Rule 3 is also vital the other way around. If we do not feel sorry then the motivation will be lacking to alter our behaviour so that we will not commit the same offence again. Emotional engagement is therefore important but must only be considered after thinking exactly what it is that we should apologise for and whether we intend to change.


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