Tuesday, April 2, 2013

When Not to Apologize

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.


JP said...

"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."

What about if you intentionally caused the moral injury? How would apology play into it then?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good question... off the top of my head I would suggest that the person should apologize anyway and take the opportunity to try to mend his ways.

Of course, someone who causes intentional harm is usually suffering from some form of sociopathy so I suspect that my words would fall on deaf ears. Or worse, that he would be happy to offer a fake apology and go back to doing what he was doing.

Anonymous said...

The problem with decoding behavior is that words and deeds do not have just one meaning. The meaning forms via an emotional process that is unique to each person. The result of this inner process is cast in the form of moral judgments. Shame and guilt are just generic types of moral judgment which are outputs of the emotional process. Saying what a person should or should not do is just another form of personal moral judgment.

I am reminded of the woman who followed mothers around in public to study if "ugly" babies get less affection and attention then "beautiful" ones? How could she determine which babies are ugly and which are beautiful given that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? All she is researching is her moral processing of information, which may be useful to share, as long as we do not confuse this with objective study.