I read Harriet Lerner’s Why Won’t You Apologize? in a sitting (with some skimming). It contains some reasonable advice here and there, but overall I found it skewed and opinionated. As I read further, I become more and more a Cat of Doubt, gazing off into the distance.
It starts out on a reasonable note; she offers a “sorry sampler,” a basic taxonomy of apologies ranging from the mildest to the most severe. I think: Yay! Here’s someone who sees gradations! Here’s someone who distinguishes among the vastly variegated versions of everyday life! But then she proceeds into her main argument, and my stomach sinks:
- If your apology isn’t perfect (on Lerner’s terms), it’s no apology at all. To make a perfect apology, you must take full responsibility for your actions, with no “buts,” contextual explanations, or uncertainties. (If you happen to be uncertain, just make yourself certain.)
- Forgiveness is overrated–and it’s not binary. You can forgive someone 90 percent but keep the 10 percent of anger. (Go for it! Keep that anger!) What’s more, there are other ways to feel better about the past. You don’t have to forgive. What you want is your own peace, and you can get it.
Why does she hold the offending party to the most uncompromising standards, and the offended party to no standards at all? Why does she present apology as “all or nothing” but forgiveness as piecemeal and inessential?
She does invoke some subtlety by advising readers to “lean into generosity,” by describing scenarios where people gradually work their way into the right words, and by acknowledging, here and there, that not all situations are alike. In addition, she makes a good case for a pure apology where such apology is appropriate.
All the same, this book has flaws of foundation, reasoning, and result.
Flaws of foundation: The book draws primarily on her own observations (from clinical work and personal life), a few cartoons, and a handful of other sources. A vast literature (of philosophy, history, poetry, drama, fiction, theology, psychology, linguistics, and other fields) goes unexamined. Even the endnotes are sparse.
Example: In the section “No One Definition of Forgiveness Fits All,” she observes that some people confuse forgiving with letting go. That’s a good point. But instead of considering what forgiveness might be, instead of taking up the topic seriously, she focuses on ways of letting go, implying that that’s what people really want when they talk about forgiveness. In fact, people may just as badly want a restored relationship or a chance to demonstrate goodwill.
Flaws of reasoning: She seems to assume that (a) there is usually a clear, defined offense at stake and (b) the parties are in a speaking relationship. From there, she casts her own (questionable but unquestioned) interpretation on the scenarios she presents.
(In reality, many situations are unclear at the outset and can arise from simple misunderstandings: for instance, in email or texting, which often lack tone, continuity, and completeness. These fragmentary communications can tempt people into apology guesswork, which does not help anyone involved. The recipient of the “guesswork” gets irritated, and the apologizer bewildered.)
Example: She describes an incident at an airport where, during a long wait for a rental car, she unthinkingly gave some candy and nuts to a little girl, in the mother’s presence. The mother said nothing about it, but Lerner kept thinking of apologizing and finally did so. The mother replied, “Thank you for the apology. I appreciate it.” She (Lerner) took this as the ultimate simple, gracious acceptance of her apology–but maybe the mother was thinking, “No one ever apologizes to me. It’s nice to have that happen for a change.” Or maybe: “I’m too tired to think of an answer, so I’ll thank her.” Or even: “I don’t want to get into it.” Over email, the words might have been even more ambiguous.
Flaws of result: Her ideal apology (presented several times, in various wordings, over the course of the book) does not always seem appropriate.
Example: She describes a situation where her friend invited her to her book release. She traveled from Kansas to New York–at considerable expense–for this occasion. At the party, she found herself absorbed in conversation with one person (whom she knew); two hours went by, and the two didn’t notice that the company had moved into another room for toasts. They didn’t join the toasting until the ritual was halfway through.
After she had returned to Kansas, the friend called her in anger. How could she have behaved so thoughtlessly? How could she have ignored the other people and the toasts? Lerner began with an “I’m sorry but…” and followed it with an “I’m sorry you were so upset.” A few days later, she called her friend back to offer a “genuine” apology–this time without qualification.
Whether this was right or wrong depends, of course, on many things. But should one have to apologize for something that was neither ill-intended nor inherently offensive? If she had been sitting in a corner glaring at everyone, or if she had been gossiping or showing off, that would have been a different matter; but from what I can tell from the story, she came to the party to support her friend. There is no crime in getting absorbed in a conversation. If the host wished to involve everyone in a toast, she could have given a clear signal. I do not think it would have been wrong to say, “I think there was a misunderstanding. Let’s sort this out.”
In some situations, I have imagined an offense where there was absolutely none intended; it meant everything to hear, from the other person, “That’s not at all what I meant; here’s what was going on.” An apology would have actually confused things, since it would have affirmed the hurt. Once I understood what had happened, I was no longer upset.
When something goes wrong between two people, they can speak about it. They don’t have to follow a script; while avoiding finger-pointing, they can say what they wish to say and listen to each other. Lerner’s book ignores the possibility that people can use their own words and minds–and draw on resources other than her advice.
Image credit: Someone made this beautiful cat sculpture in Fort Tryon Park. I took the photo.
Note: I made some edits, and then some additions, to this piece after posting it.