Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Apologies, Apologies

It doesn’t take too much to get me going on the subject of apology. I have written extensively about it, both in my last book and on this blog. I join those who consider it to be a basic social skill, a primary way to correct error and to reassert good character.

Elizabeth Bernstein’s report about recent research on apology was amply sufficient to inspire a post. Link here.

People who never apologize suffer hubris. Whatever they feel about themselves, when they fail to apologize (ever) they are saying that they never make mistakes.

Why so? Because they are acutely aware of the fact that an apology bespeaks a loss of status, stature, authority, and dignity.

When you apologize, you humble yourself. People who refuse to humble themselves are generally very thin-skinned and very unsure of their position. They see themselves as frauds and worry that an apology will reveal, in an instant, their pretense.

Someone who never apologizes is asserting that he never makes mistakes. If things go wrong on his watch, someone else must be at fault.

Those who are victimized and scapegoated will eventually tire of their burden and will reject the authority or friendship of the person who never apologizes.

And then there are people who apologize all the time, so often that you begin to feel that they are sorry that they are walking on the planet.

Making themselves excessively submissive, or excessively self-effacing, such people always present themselves as being at fault, and thus are constantly trying to ingratiate themselves with others.

Once they define themselves as inhabiting the bottom of the social hierarchy, they are saying that they should be treated with pity.

Apologizing all the time projects weakness, and is a sign of lower social status. If you keep saying that you are sorry, people will think you are sorry. They will simply not pay any attention to your words or actions, because, after all,  you have defined them all as mistakes.

You are not going to get very far in this world if every other word out of your mouth is: “Sorry.”

As Bernstein reports, people who never (or infrequently) apologize tend to be of the male persuasion. People who apologize all (or most) of the time tend to be of the female gender.

Even then, it is not as simple as it looks. Because it depends on what counts as an apology.

Apology is a ritual, not an art. In order to count as an apology, the words must fulfill certain structural requirements.

At its best, an apology should be sincere, and meaningful. When someone sees you apologize, he should see the pain etched into your face. Apology involves a loss of face, and when you offer one sincerely your face will look as though it has been contorted beyond recognition.

Evidently, any cosmetic procedure that makes it impossible for you to move your face will inhibit your ability to offer a sincere apology.

One sincere apology is worth far more than saying “sorry” all the time. Yet, as Bernstein notes, if the best you can do is a pro forma apology, that, in itself, is better than none at all.

Saying you’re “sorry” is insufficient to count as an apology. When tossed into a conversation like sprinkles on an ice-cream cone, the word feels like an add-on, improving the taste, but not, itself, the real thing. If a sincere apology is accompanied by intense and visible feelings of deep shame, it never looks like a topping.

An apology cannot include the word “if.“ You are not sorry if you say that you feel badly if the other person has taken offense.

An apology is an admission of personal wrong-doing. It takes full responsibility for said wrong-doing.

If you did wrong, you did wrong. You can apologize for your own bad behavior. You cannot imply that it only counts as an apology if the other person feels hurt.

That would be like saying that you feel badly for having shot the arrow into your neighbor’s back yard if it hit someone. Otherwise, you do not.

Apologies should never be accompanied by an explanation of why you made the mistake. If you try to excuse or rationalize your error, you are, by definition, not taking full, personal responsibility for it.

“My mother made me do it” compromises the apology. When therapy teaches you how to understand why you made the mistake, it is also teaching you how not to apologize, thus how to undermine your good character.

You should not accompany your apology with the offer of a gift. Your sincerity is not affirmed by tacking on an iPad or a trip to Hawaii.

When you apologize you are implicitly pledging to rectify your behavior. If you apologize and continue to make the same mistakes, your apology, however it sounded or looked, becomes insincere.

If you offer a gift, you are trying to buy off or shut up the person you have offended.

I was also intrigued to learn in Bernstein’s article that researchers have found out that we apologize most to friends, and least to family members.

Also, we apologize to strangers more than we do to romantic lovers.

To whom do we apologize: first, friends; then strangers; then lovers; then family members.

As I read it, this confirms a suspicion that I have long harbored: the more a relationship is purely social, the more we manage it actively, and the more we are on good behavior.

It was not an accident that Aristotle saw friendship as the most exemplary instance of ethical behavior. Nor is it an accident that Freud and his followers, trapped as they are in an amoral torpor, define all human relations around family and romantic ties.

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