Are there times when it is better not to apologize? If apology is supposed to make you feel better, how can it happen that some people feel better for not apologizing?
A recent research report has addressed these complex issues.
The study is better than most, but still we should clarify some of the presuppositions.
I am struck, for example, that the studies fail to distinguish between shame and guilt. By attaching apology to guilt, thus to criminal acts, the researchers confuse breaking laws with failing to honor commitments.
One may apologize for committing a crime, but a pledge to change your ways will normally not undo the damage you did when you burned your neighbor’s house down.
One feels shame for being late for an appointment. Normally, one apologizes for the failing. One feels a lesser degree of shame for using the wrong dinner fork, but it is not necessary to apologize. It is sufficient to use the correct fork. The gesture might have caused offense, but since it was most likely caused by ignorance of proper table manners, apology is uncalled for
Strictly speaking, apology is associated with shame, not guilt.
Of course, some people apologize all the time, whether they are in the right or the wrong, while others rarely apologize at all, even if they are egregiously in the wrong.
You should apologize when your own behavior causes a moral injury. The apology aims to undo the harm done by declaring your action unintentional and by promising never to do it again.
Yet, you do not need to apologize every time someone takes offense. When you are dealing with someone who is hypersensitive and prone to grievance, your actions might not be the proximate cause of his hurt feelings. You do not need to apologize for someone else’s thin skin.
Human nature being what it is, some people abuse the ritual of apology because they like to see other people squirm.
Apologizing is not supposed to make you feel good. When Japanese businessmen apologize for their bad leadership they do enjoy the experience. They do not feel cleansed; they feel humbled.
Apology should always be accompanied by an act of self-abnegation. Since the sanction of shame is ostracism, people who apologize often resign from their positions. The act ought not to make them feel better.
Second, the study points out correctly that we should not overlook the important role an apology serves for the victim of a slight or even of a trauma.
If someone offends you and does not apologize he is signifying that his offensive act or gesture was a meaningful expression of his intentions toward you. If someone steps on your foot and does not apologize you will see his action as an aggression, a prelude to further aggression.
Assuming that the person in question is someone you know and not just a face in a crowd, you will have reason to be angry with him.
But note the following: it has surely happened that you are feeling angry with someone for not having apologized after offending you. You have surely noticed that when the person does apologize his gesture will often cause your anger to dissipate.
As a rule, you are obliged to forgive someone who apologizes sincerely.
Thus, the cure for anger is not to expose it on the public square but to elicit an apology from the person who has offended you.
This assumes that the trauma is mental, not physical, that we are dealing with an offense, not with physical abuse. An assault that leaves a scar is not so easily undone.