The Humanity and Humanness of Apology

fort-tryon-1Every once in a while, a piece pops up about the “right” and “wrong” ways to apologize. A new one, by Jane E. Brody, appeared today in the New York Times and followed the same pattern. I have copied my comment below (with a few minor edits, which I have indicated in bold). Overall, while the article makes some good points, its dogma gets in the way. After the block quote, I will explain where Brody’s argument becomes too rigid.

This article contains one essential piece of wisdom: that apologies should be sincere, unfettered, and brief. Beyond that, though, the author went too far in putting forth a formula.

In Jewish law [I said “tradition,” but it’s actually law, with qualifications], one is supposed to ask three times for forgiveness; if one does not, one has not done one’s part. The Rambam (Maimonides) writes of this in Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), 2:9-10. According to some, though, a person should ask for forgiveness only twice, since the third request would oblige the other person to forgive. In any case, the act of asking opens the door. At the same time, one should not view those “three times” as foolproof. This is a human gesture.

But what if you do not know exactly what you did wrong? Should you avoid “I’m sorry if” and force an interpretation onto the situation? Or should you instead offer a preliminary, tentative, qualified apology, with the understanding that you will make it more concrete when you understand more? An apology should be truthful; if you do not know the truth, are you supposed to pretend? Is it not better to show your uncertainty?

Moreover, we are all fallible, as are our apologies. A slightly misworded apology should not be cause for a sneer. (“She said ‘if.’ Ha! That shows what kind of person she is.”)

In short, while there are right and wrong forms of apology, an overly strict formula can actually stand in the way of right action and feeling. [I would revise this last sentence but am letting it stand, since I make my points below.]

Brody begins by distinguishing easy apologies from difficult ones–and suggesting that in the latter case, the wording makes a great difference: “Instead of eradicating the emotional pain the affront caused, a poorly worded apology can result in lasting anger and antagonism, and undermine an important relationship.”

But she then goes on to describe an apology that, according to the psychologist and author Harriet Lerner, she (Brody) performed perfectly. The result, too, was perfect. Homemade jam and friendship.

So what do the rest of us mortals do wrong? She loses no time in getting to our errors.

First, she says that the apology should be brief, sincere, and unfettered. When people qualify their apologies or focus on the other person’s feelings, they are avoiding their own responsibility. There’s no disputing this, except that sometimes we don’t know exactly where we went wrong or how the  other person felt. Ideally an apology is “unfettered,” but not all circumstances are ideal.

Second, according to Brody and Lerner, a request for forgiveness should not be part of the apology. I find that much too dogmatic. In asking for forgiveness, I can show humility and acknowledge the mutuality of the situation. I have hurt you, and I am now also hurt by this rift. Of course a request for forgiveness should not be pushy–but if you do not include it, it may be unclear what you actually want. The other person may think no reply is needed.

The offended party, she says, does not have to forgive (that is true); he or she can do something relaxing instead. She quotes Lerner: “There is no one path to healing … There are many roads to letting go of corrosive emotions without forgiving, like therapy, meditation, medication, even swimming.” Granted, but isn’t forgiveness preferable, when possible? If you have received an apology and are capable of forgiving, is it just as good to go to a spa?

But all of this seems tangential to an essential point that Brody does not make: Whenever possible, an apology should involve face-to-face conversation or some other human dialogue. Maybe a letter initiates it. Maybe a long, involved conversation is unnecessary. Maybe it takes thirty seconds to make up. But the people should have a chance to hear and see each other. If they cannot meet in person, they can approximate the meeting in the mind and heart.

This is especially important in our internet-run era, where many conversations take place by email, texting, or other “messaging.” It is as difficult to convey your intent by email as it is to understand someone else’s. Face-to-face conversation, or even a phone call, can clear up a thousand misunderstandings in a minute.

In the absence of conversation, a letter can become an impossible performance, especially if you are supposed to say everything just right, and especially when expert after expert lays out the “do’s” and “don’ts,” essentially encouraging the offended party to judge and dismiss the apologizer. Get those words right, says Brody, or you may cause lasting pain. And then it’s your fault!

That, in my view, goes against the very spirit of apology, which involves recognizing oneself and another as human.

Note: I made some minor revisions to this piece after posting it–and edited it again later. The substance remains unchanged.

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1 Comment

  1. Today I added another comment to the NYT article:

    The wide-ranging and numerous comments suggest the importance of this topic. As I read through them and sort through my own thoughts, I recognize the importance of clarity throughout. If one is confused about the situation itself, or about one’s own reactions and wishes, one may end up conveying confusion in the apology. But clarity can be hard to reach–and “apology dogma” can get in the way.

    Sometimes people apologize because they themselves feel wronged. They think that if they figure out and apologize for their own part, the other person will warm up and reciprocate. As a result, the apology comes across as manipulative. The other person knows perfectly well that the apologizing person hopes for an apology in return. (But the apologizing party doesn’t say it outright, since it’s “wrong.”)

    What on earth is wrong with just laying out the situation as one sees it? It may be a “tactical” mistake, but it’s preferable to manipulation. “Here’s where I believe I went wrong, and here is where I felt wronged.” Then listen carefully to the other person and try, together, to arrive at a mutual understanding. Then one can apologize in a meaningful way.

    But that works best in a conversation, in person, where the two people are already willing to listen to each other. A larger question, then, is why we have moved to a point where such conversations are rare–where everything rests on a letter or email that, like a job application, must ring true but also follow the rubric to a T.

    Reply

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