At 23, trusting the endorsement of a friend, I signed up for The Landmark Forum—either a pocket-emptying programme or life-changing workshop, I’m still unsure to this day. But it’s where I was forced out of the convenient habit of rolling up remorse and storing it as guilt. It’s also where I learnt that feeling sorry wasn’t the least bit virtuous; saying sorry was. It would accelerate the journey towards our promised “breakthroughs”, we were told, and our happiness levels would fly off the charts. I searched my contact list for fraught and fading relationships, made difficult calls and wrote nervously on pretty stationery.
Those conversations and letters were awkward, confused and brought no change, except for ending my relationship. A week after I emailed my boyfriend what I thought was a quite generous apology, I demanded why he hadn’t sent me an equally good one in return. That’s when I learnt a second, more expensive lesson: even saying sorry isn’t virtuous if not done right.
SORRY TO SAY...
Sorry isn’t a magic word, it’s an unwieldy one. And to make any headway with it, we must face some truths. For one, saying sorry doesn’t feel great; not saying sorry feels much better. Even science agrees. A study published in the European Journal Of Social Psychology in 2012 found that people who refused to apologise felt more empowered, had greater self-worth and, behold the power of self-preservation, even reported greater feelings of integrity. The reasoning is simple: by not asking for another’s judgment, we retain the power to right our wrongs as inaccurately as we like. On the other hand, an apology offers immediate health benefits and a rush of empathy to the receiver, but only awkwardness and shame to the one who’s contrite.
Second, an apology makes no sense. It’s a bunch of words that can’t, as my fourth-standard teacher liked to say before throwing chalk across the class, make a dead man alive. It can’t undo the damage. This logic also kills any motivation for reparation. But what an apology manages to do, quite effectively, is restore balance. “What makes an apology work is the exchange of shame and power between the offender and the offended,” explains psychologist Aaron Lazare, who studied this human trade-off for his book On Apology. By asking for forgiveness, we give up power and take on shame, thus levelling the imbalance of emotions. This explains why countries apologise for atrocities in their history, like the Holocaust, and why mothers demand apologies above monetary compensation when their children are lost to violence. They offer the victim no tangible benefits, but restore a loss of dignity or a sense of justice.
Despite the popularity of the hashtag and the No Apology Living movement, there has been a significant upswing in the number of public apologies in recent times. Comedian Steven Harvey spent two episodes of his TV show compensating for crowning the wrong Miss Universe, while Johnny Depp and Amber Heard issued a stone-faced PSA to make nice after being caught smuggling their pet dogs into Australia earlier this year. Most aggressive in his penitence, though, was Justin Bieber. He went on an Apology Tour (a trend that’s now moved into The Oxford Dictionary), released the earworm ‘Sorry’, and somewhat dampened the vibe of his Comedy Central Roast by apologising some more.
Lazare ascribes the rise of the public mea culpa to the greatest watchdog our time: the internet. Apologies turn viral in minutes, call-out culture is thriving and public prosecution is fierce. But not all apologies clear credibility checks. SorryWatch, a blog that inspects apologies in the news, failed the one released by Meredith McIver in July, when a speech she wrote for Melania Trump echoed a 2008 speech by Michelle Obama. The apology took full responsibility for the unintended plagiarism, clarified that the Trumps are the best bosses ever and deeply regretted “the confusion and hysteria” (read: everybody else’s overreaction) that her mistake caused.
Replay your own apologies and you’ll find that the rest of us don’t often fare much better. Why wrestle with clumsy sentences when there are at least four different sad-face emojis, right? Or bring up bad feelings when all can be forgiven with a Pokémon Go run? But hiding behind gestures only clogs a relationship over time, instead of fixing its imbalance. A pitch-perfect apology must be approached head-on, and for that, we need to lose these disguises:
The non-apology: “I’m sorry if you were offended.” It looks like the real thing but reeks of condescension and subtly deflects responsibility. One of the most popular non-apologies of all time is the televised one President Bill Clinton made in August 1998, when he finally admitted to his affair with Monica Lewinsky. The Progressive Review deconstructed the speech to explain why: Out of the 549 words he used, only 96 suggested remorse or regret. The President made several more attempts in the following months, until he finally arrived at “I have sinned” that September.
The high-speed apology: This is quick, painless and has all the warmth of a customer care call. Great for dousing tempers, but leaves the other person trapped with excess steam. According to a 2004 study titled ‘Better Late Than Early’, holding back on an apology for a while might actually be the more considerate thing to do. Allow the injured person time to express hurt or disappointment and they come out feeling better understood, and more forthcoming with forgiveness.
The pre-emptive apology: It’s the“no offence, but” style of conciliation. It implies a terrible blow is coming up, that it couldn’t be avoided and that you’ve decided exactly how much pain the other person is allotted. It sounds something like this: “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you this earlier but… we’re broken up. I already said sorry, what more do you want?”
BETTER SORRY THAN SAFE
A full-bodied apology wears many layers, and is made of itchy fabric. Research published in the Negotiation And Conflict Management Research journal this May outlined six parameters for an effective apology: expression of regret (I’m sorry for); explanation of what went wrong (laughing hysterically at your wedding dress); acknowledgment of responsibility (That was an insensitive thing to do); declaration of repentance (I regret hurting you on such an important day); offer of repair (I promise to be more considerate in the future); request for forgiveness (Can we move past this?). You can skip the last one if it feels too uptight, but finding forgiveness will be near impossible if you skip number three and five. The most important, and the toughest part of repentance, is to state, loudly and clearly, the exact thing you want everyone to forget.
While owning up to a mistake is honourable, a somewhat contentious matter is that of offence. If you know you meant no harm and your conscience feels squeaky clean, why offer an inauthentic apology? There are two ways of handling this. A few years ago, Jason Alexander (George from Seinfeld) referred to cricket as “a gay game” on a talk show. And this July, Salman Khan used the analogy of a “raped woman” to illustrate the gruelling training he endured for Sultan. Presumably, both meant no harm; understandably, both faced outrage. Khan refused to apologise and let his father do it for him, while Alexander reached out to his gay friends to understand the controversy. He returned with a 1000-word “message of amends” that’s heartening in its compassion, and a reminder of how we can never be too sure of our innocence. Sample: “I can only apologise. In comedy, timing is everything. And when a group of people are still fighting so hard for understanding, acceptance, dignity and essential rights—the time for some kinds of laughs has not yet come.”
Protect it from overuse, and every apology will grow empathy, shrink egos, alleviate hurt and carry relationships to safe shores. Despite swearing off life-cleanse programs since, I did witness the illogical act make tremendous changes in that auditorium: stubborn patriarchs turned unsure feminists, mothers- and daughters-in-law avowed fresh starts with awkward side-hugs, and edgy teens were humbled into vulnerability. It’s why I might actually work through that contact list again.