Every 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.