The Japanese have a word “Gomenasai” that is roughly equivalent to the English word “sorry”. It’s used to apologize when you harm or offend someone. The word implies humility (Sorry to disturb you…Sorry for coming into your house), but it’s also used as a way to avoid guilt. Someone will say sorry just seconds before they ram the back of your legs with a shopping trolley. Another will mouth the word as they rudely cut you off with their car. This is how people use apologies every day, except perhaps more blatant.
How can apologies be so valuable but so misused?
Genuine apology is an unfashionable concept. With humility and one way service it’s among the least popular traits in our advanced culture. Nonetheless, it’s a vital part of life that’s indispensable in building strong relationships.
What then, is an apology? In its simplest form, an apology is taking responsibility for a disturbance in a relationship. These insincere apologies imply nothing about your attitude towards the disturbance you are taking responsibility for. A useful apology always acknowledges that you regret your part in the disturbance and are trying to stop or reverse its occurrence.
An apology is not just a tool to make peace. It’s not another way of saying “Get off my back”. It’s not a way of introducing harm, “sorry but I am going to have to divorce you”. It’s not a tool to manipulate others.
When should you apologize? Whenever there is a break in a relationship. No matter what the issue, there will usually be a part, even a small part, that was your responsibility. For this you should apologize. Realizing that a disturbance is your responsibility is a giant step towards emotional maturity.
But WHEN should you apologize? As soon as possible. Depending on the relationship this may be immediately or when you’ve cooled off after a few days
It is our responsibility to take the initiative to apologize. If you wait for the other party to come to you, you may be waiting forever. It takes boldness and integrity to make the first step. Never let an apology swing on timidness or lack of confidence.
A genuine apology is not a habitual apologetic mannerism. It is a deliberate effort to solve a relational problem that you have contributed to. This requires of discipline. Believe me because I know from experience.
I struggle with apologies as much as the next person. I find it’s usually the hardest when the relationship is particularly important to me, like my direct family. When I’m in the wrong, I will try anything I can think of, short of apologizing, to try and solve the problem.
Sooner or later, though, I have to swallow my pride and apologize. It should be no surprise but usually my apology contributes to healing a damaged relationship. Often the relationship ends up stronger than ever. Apology is one of the toughest but most productive habits that I am trying to adopt. We all need to sharpen up our apology sense.
There was, and still is, an Australian Prime Minister who refused to say sorry to the Australian Aboriginal people for crimes against them in the past. This isn’t a political article so I won’t go into details, but it seems the main reason that he wouldn’t publicly apologize was that he was afraid of the backlash. He feared an apology would mean admitting guilt and that this would fuel the disturbance and not remedy it.
This sort of attitude is all too prevalent in our society. We no longer trust each other. We realize that if we apologize, we’re admitting guilt. If we admit guilt it can be used against us. This may be true in a legal sense — I have held car insurance policies that are void if I admit guilt or apologize at the scene of a potential accident — but it is totally wrong in a relational sense.
We have to get past the paranoia that makes us believe that everyone will try to use an apology against us. There will be times when an apology is abused, but more often than not, a genuine apology will be well received and will go a long way towards solving a disturbance between two people.
How to apologize:
- Make it genuine – Anyone can spot a false apology and it will do more harm than good. A genuine apology is aimed solely at taking responsibility and overcoming a disturbance. There are no hidden obligations or expectations attached.
- Don’t justify your actions – If you are busy explaining why you did what you did, it will start to sound like you aren’t apologizing at all, that you aren’t ready to take responsibility. A brief explanation may help understanding, while a justification may just fuel the disturbance.
- Make a commitment to change – If you can’t confirm that you mean to improve, then you aren’t committed to an apology. If you aren’t committed to changing your habit of getting home late, don’t say “Sorry I am home late”. This will be a hollow and ineffective apology. You are better off thanking the other person, “Thanks for putting up with me coming home so late. I appreciate it” and taking it from there.
- Phrased you apology carefully – Make sure the other person knows why you are apologizing. “I was passing by so I thought I’d drop in and say sorry” is a lot different to “I wanted to come and apologize because I really do care about this relationship”. Don’t fake it. If you have a good reason to keep the relationship alive the other person will want to hear it.
- Be ready for an awkward conclusion – While sometimes an apology is followed straight away by a counter apology and peace and flowers and little birds carrying banners of love through the air, not everyone reacts this way. Some people will behave indifferently, some will behave coldly, and some will react in a downright hostile way. This is out of your control. You have made the step to apologize. Doing it in a productive way is the best you can do. Maybe the other person will appreciate it now, later, or never. No matter what, you have done your bit and you can relax. The rest is up to them.