‘The fake apology haunts you more’:How to sincerely apologise

Life is full of fraught encounters. In the “How Do You Do It?” series,Samantha Selinger-Morris examines the prickly scenarios we sometimes find ourselves in and asks experts how best to deal with them.

We’ve all been there,stunned and unconsciously holding our breath after we’ve hurt the feelings of someone we love. We screwed up,and now we need to make things right. But it’s so painful. So westumble.

“Oh,I got so irritated,” says a close friend,about being on the receiving end of a botched apology from her husband the other day. “He said,‘Look,I’m really sorry,I can see what I said was hurtful,but you have been behaving particularly difficult lately.’ That made me angrier than anything else. Part of me wanted him to say,‘F--- you,I meant everything I said’,rather than,‘You pushed me to do it’.


Not to throw him in this category,but isn’t that like the mantra of abusers,like internationally and historically? ‘Sorry I did it,but....’ The fake apology almost haunts you more[than the hurtful comment].”

It is,saymanytherapists,a classic apology screw-up.

But insufficient apologies have become something of a cultural norm,say experts.

“We sometimes move through life so quickly that we can forget that sometimes stopping and acknowledging the hurt of another person,asking ‘How are you going here?’ can make the biggest difference,” saysProfessor Marnie Hughes-Warrington,a philosopher and historian at theUniversity of South Australia who has researched historical denial and reconciliation. “Because it is about recognition.”

She is referring to the acknowledgement of the specific ways in which we have hurt someone – and what our plan is for making sure we won’t do it again – that is the “crucial and necessary part of an apology”,if it is to have any chance of being received as sincere and meaningful by this person who’s been wronged.

It’s perhaps ironic,given that we’re living in a time that has been dubbed “the age of apology” by historians.

“It was almost unheard of for a group to apologise for something they’d done historically to another group unless they were forced to[after a war],” says University of Queensland professor Matthew Hornsey,who has researched the psychology of how feelings of mistrust and threat can lead people to reject messages. In contrast,he says,governments and powerful groups around the world have regularly made public apologies to groups they’ve wronged since the 1970s. They include the Catholic Church apologising for child abuse,former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd apologising to the Stolen Generation,and the Canadian government apologising for “their version of the stolen generation”.

But,says Hughes-Warrington,these apologies have often failed to role-model to the rest of us how we can best apologise in our own lives. Instead,they’ve frequently demonstrated what happens – often to catastrophic effect – when the necessary ingredients of a sincere apology are missing.

“They don’t hear care,and they don’t hear compassion,” she says,about various groups – like indigenous populations in Canada,Australia and New Zealand – who’ve received apologies or statements of “truth” about past abuse through numerous truth and reconciliation commissions,but which haven’t acknowledged their “lived experience”. (For instance:that because of generations of discrimination,they are unable to find meaningful work,their life expectancy is 20 years below the rest of the population,or their children have died.)

“It[often has a feeling] of sounding[to victims] like a transactional avoidance of liability,or it’s just a ‘Brush my hands,done,moving on’[feeling].” And for many groups,such experiences are at the heart of stalled reconciliations and ongoing fractured relationships with their fellow citizens.

It’s a mistake that many of us find all too easy to make in our personal lives,too,especially with those we’re closest to.

So what are some of the biggest mistakes that individuals often make when apologising? And what exactly does a good apology look like?

“I’m sorrybut…” is one of the biggest no-nos,as is the phrase,“I’m sorry you feel that way…” says Hornsey.

“Because that’s not an apology,” he says,of the latter phrase. “That’s basically saying,‘Look,I’m sorry that you feel upset’,but you’re not saying you’re sorry for what you did. You think the other person is overreacting,and you use the language of ‘Sorry’ to express that.”

“That’s basically saying,‘Look,I’m sorry that you feel upset’,but you’re not saying you’re sorry for what you did. You think the other person is overreacting,and you use the language of ‘Sorry’ to express that.”

As for the dreaded “I’m sorrybut...”? It is a classic example of a phrase that someone uses when they’re trying to preserve their dignity,says Hornsey.

“There is,I think,a universal intrinsic need to try and maintain dignity and pride in certain situations,” he says,noting that he has felt this way himself. “I think what I’ve learned is to let go of that need for dignity because what the victim wants istheir dignity restored. They don’t want to look after your dignity.

“When you’re qualifying it[your apology]” – with the “but” – “you’re sort of asking people to look after your feelings. It’s almost like you’re asking people to think about you,and make allowances for you. And I think the apology is not the time to do that. Apologies are better when they’re unqualified.”

So how do we go about offering a sincere apology,when it can be so difficult to sacrifice some of our own dignity?

“What people are looking for is a sense that when you say ‘Sorry’,that you get it,and you mean it,” says Hornsey. “And by ‘getting it’,it’s like,you know what you did wrong,and you know the consequences it had for the other person,and you actually understand deeply what the situation was. So you communicate that understanding. Without that,it’s pointless because they’re[the person apologising is] not going to change.”

It’s the changing that is crucial.

“They want a sign that you’ve changed,” he says,of the wronged party. “It’s like,[they think] ‘You’ve done this thing to me,broken my trust.... and could do that again,so you’re a risk to me. So I’m not going to get close to you.’ But what a[sincere] apology says is,‘My character has changed. I’m not a bad person. I’m a good person who did a bad thing.’ And so that signals that they’re no longer a threat to you. If you can do an apology well.”

No one’s saying it will be easy. But the effect of nailing it might just be life-changing.

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Samantha Selinger-Morris is a lifestyle writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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