There are so many situations that would be improved if only people knew how to apologize. A good apology isn’t really that hard to make. When the author known as Lemony Snicket recently made a strange comment at the National Book Awards after Jacqueline Woodson won in the young adult category for her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, he apologized as if he meant it. He characterized his comment as “monstrously inappropriate and yes, racist.” He said he shouldn’t have said it, he realized he shouldn’t have said it, and he’s sorry he said it. And he recognized that his words didn’t just hurt Woodson.
Then, noting that he made this remark under a circumstance where what he was supposed to be doing was help shine a light on great books, he donated $10,000 to a campaign for diversity in publishing, and asked everyone else to donate, noting that for the next 24 hours he would match all donations received up to 100,000.
None of which makes is comment retroactively all right, but because he didn’t go with the typical, “if people were offended, I apologize,” or “my comments were misunderstood,” or “anyone who knows me in daily life knows this isn’t the kind of person I am.”
When people go one of those routes, they aren’t apologizing, they’re making excuses and trying to get out of trouble. They don’t really believe that what they said or did was wrong. And they don’t believe that anyone who is offended is “legitimately” hurt.
It isn’t fun to admit that you’re wrong. Most of us are not socialized to admit that we are wrong about something. We’re taught that being wrong is bad—not just a mistake, but that there must be something seriously wrong with us if we are wrong.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot not just because there have been events in the news that really could have benefited from one of the participants giving a sincere apology, but because I find myself apologizing a lot, and not always the way I ought to.
For instance, I made an off-the-cuff comment in response to a friend’s comments, and then immediately started second-guessing myself. The friend was talking about something he cared about, something that was important to him, and I made a humorous observation that wasn’t really on-topic. So I decided to follow-up, in case my stupid observation had hurt or irritated him or even pissed him off. And part of what I said was, “Sometimes my humorous observations come across as teasing. And sometimes my teasing comes across as mean.”
But that isn’t true. The truth is that sometimes what I think of as a humorous observation is a dumb, or inappropriate, or denigrating comment. I may not have meant it to be denigrating or dumb, but I phrased it badly. Or I wasn’t giving the conversation as much attention as I should. Or I just didn’t think at all. My intentions aren’t unimportant, but whether I meant it or not, the words that I said matter.
Similarly, it isn’t that sometimes my teasing “comes across” as mean, sometimes the comment is unkind or even catty. Again, maybe I didn’t mean to be catty, but I said the words. I said them, they’re my fault. Maybe it was a mistake. Maybe I was feeling grumpy about something completely unrelated and the grumpies spilled over on this person. Or, maybe I was feeling a little unkindly toward the person (we all feel unkindly towards others, sometimes, even people we love very much) and let out a thought I would have kept to myself under different circumstances.
And then there are disagreements. Emotions can run especially high when we’re having a disagreement with someone we care about. The more we care about them, the more vexing it can be that they don’t agree with us. It can be difficult to properly apologize in those cases. I may regret some of what I said to the relative who keeps harping about how gay people being allowed to marry will bring the wrath of god on the world, but the only thing I need to apologize for were the unkind words. When I won’t agree with what she said, when I continue to believe that what she said was not just wrong, but rude and bigoted, my apology may not seem sincere.
And there isn’t a nice solution to that one.
If we’re going to apologize, we need to mean it. And sometimes that means not apologizing for every thing the other person is upset about, alas.
Because while a good apology can salve many ills, an insincere one is just rubbing salt into the wound.