Many years ago I wrote a book called: Saving Face: America and the Politics of Shame. Ostensibly, and actually, I wanted to clarify the distinction between two of the most important negative emotions, two emotions that involve social sanctions for bad behavior: shame and guilt.
Since most people use the terms interchangeably, as though they were just two sides of the same coin, clear distinctions seemed needed and desirable.
Differentiating guilt and shame is not that difficult. Guilt involves breaking the law. If you commit a crime or transgression, you will feel guilt.
Guilt is an anxious anticipation of punishment. Once you receive the punishment, your guilt is over and done with.
Shame is about failure. When you let the team down, do not show up for an appointment, use the wrong fork, or lead your company into bankruptcy… you feel shame. Since there are different levels of social responsibility, there are different degrees of shame.
In none of those cases have you broken any laws or committed any crime or transgressed any taboos.
Since shame involves a loss of reputation, overcoming it is far more difficulty than overcoming guilt. You can only overcome shame through several clearly defined steps.
First, you should apologize, thereby announcing in public that you take sole responsibility for your own failure. An apology must be stated with sufficient sincerity to be credible and meaningful.
Saying you are sorry is not enough. If your face is not contorted in a severe grimace, your apology will feel insincere.
Second, when you apologize you are vowing never to do it again. If you apologize for failing to show up or for failing to keep your composure, and if you should then fail to show up or lose control, your actions will have voided your apology.
If the purpose of the apology is to erase the mark of disrepute you have brought on yourself, going back on your vow will make that mark more indelible.
Third, in most, but not all cases, an apology should be accompanied by your making some amends for your failure. If you have failed your corporate or political responsibilities, you will need to resign your position and to withdraw from society for a time.
Shame involves ostracism; it’s primary sanction is isolation from the group. An apology accompanied by self-withdrawal saves the group the trouble of ostracizing you. You should not, in other words, apologize and then go back to work as though nothing had happened.
In the long run, apology will put you on the path toward restoring your reputation. It says that the failing was yours and yours alone, but that it is not the meaning of your life. It says that even though you showed yourself to be untrustworthy, you want people to overlook your failing and to trust you again.
Thus, apology erases a failure in the sense that it declares that the action was not a meaningful expression of who you are.
Often shame and guilt are confused. Under some circumstances you can feel both at the same time.
When a financial officer embezzles company funds he is committing a crime. Unless he is a sociopath he will feel some guilt. Hopefully, he will be prosecuted and incarcerated.
At the same time he has failed to uphold his responsibility to his company, his colleagues, and his family. Thus, he should also feel ashamed and owes many people an apology.
On the other hand, a neighbor who had promised to water your plants during your vacation but forgot to do it will feel shame, but not guilt. He has not broken any laws; he will not be indicted and prosecuted. He owes you an apology and should make amends.
I am reviewing these points because a reputable publication, Scientific American, recently reported on some research into the power of apology and grossly misunderstood the issue. Link here.
Worse yet, it drew conclusions that can easily mislead people.
The research in question claims that apologies fail to live up to expectations. It suggests that, as a general rule, people feel much better about an imagined apology than they do about a real one.
One might read this and conclude that apology as a tool of relationship repair is overrated, and thus, that when you offer one, you are essentially engaging in an empty ritual. Such a conclusion would not tend to encourage sincere apologies.
Since I have often argued in favor of the ritual of apology, I naturally find this all to be unacceptable.
Apology is a social ritual. It does not fail. People may fail when their actions do not conform to what the ritual requires. When that happens apology does not do what it should be doing. But that does not mean that it has failed. It means that you have failed.
There are many problems with the research.
First, it suggests that people apologize for transgressions. In the experiment the researchers invented, those who receive an apology have been cheated out of some money.
As I suggested, apology, by definition, does not focus on transgression, thus sin and crime. It involves a failure to fulfill a social obligation.
When people apologize for cheating you, they do owe you an apology, not for transgressing or cheating, but for betraying your trust and confidence.
Second, the researchers assert that our “cultural wisdom” sees apology as “the first step in mending a broken relationship.”
Actually, apology is the first step to repairing a broken reputation. Hopefully, restoring your reputation will help to repair your relationships, but the two are not the same.
Third, the research suggests that the purpose of apology is to help us to “forget about the bad things that have happened.”
Even though apology is a first step in that direction, it is not about erasing bad events, but about helping people to forget your failures, to encourage them to see you differently.
Apology is only a first step in a long process. The fact that an immediate apology does not produce the expected results in the experiment's subjects does not cast aspersions on the social ritual as much as it does on the failures of these researchers to understand the terms of their experiment.
Fourth, in the research experiment those whose trust was betrayed received written apologies.
If apology expresses shame and if shame involves the loss of face, an effective apology should be offered face-to-face. At the very least, the person’s face should be visible.
Reading facial expressions is one of the most important ways he have of telling how sincere the apology is. Sending an apology by letter, by email, or by text deprives you of that information.
Fifth, in the experiment, the subjects receive apologies for having been cheated, but they do not actually receive any recompense.
If they found this reality less satisfying than an imagined apology, good for them. They were rejecting faked apologies but maintained their belief in the effectiveness of apology.
Their imagined apologies were closer to the correct ritual than were those offered in the experiment.
As I suggested, the experimental subjects understood something that the researchers missed: apologies don’t fail. People fail. If you don’t understand that, you do not understand apology.