“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” Benjamin Franklin
Everyone makes mistakes, but seldom do we acknowledge them. Apology, when sincere, is a powerful tool to mend relationships. If it is insincere, however, it can make things much worse. The key to an apology is genuine empathy. Empathy elicits sympathy, which invokes forgiveness.
The stereotype that women apologize more than men is true. It isn’t, however, because men can’t admit when they are wrong. It is because men and women have different perceptions of what constitutes being wrong. A study by the University of Waterloo in Ontario found that men have a higher threshold for what they think demands an apology. They also were offended less frequently. When it came to apologizing when they felt they did something wrong, both men and women apologized 81% of the time.
The study also found that we most frequently apologize to our friends (46% of the time). Surprisingly, we apologize to strangers (22%) more than romantic partners (11%) and family members (7%). In total, people apologize about four times a week.
Successful apologies have three main components. First and foremost, the apology must be sincere. Everything from word choice to facial expressions conveys this. Nothing ruins an apology faster than saying, “I’m sorry, but…” This illustrates the second component, responsibility. A person must become accountable for their wrongful action and not make any excuses. Finally, a person must offer reparations, or when none are available ask forgiveness. This can range from offering to pay for a broken window to indications that the behavior will not be repeated in the future. When contrition is sincere, forgiveness will likely be granted.
The art of apology also translates to the public and institutional sphere. Public figures seem to have a unique knack for messing up apologies. Take the example of Rupert Murdock when he deflected some blame to subordinates during the News of the World scandal. Murdock said, “There’s no question in my mind that maybe even the editor, but certainly beyond that, someone took charge of a cover-up, which we were victim to and I regret.” These words violate the second tenant of apology and deflect blame. Murdoch even suggests that he is a victim, something that people who have been wronged never want to hear from the wrongdoer. There is also the apology of Lance Armstrong to consider. The main reason that his apology has not been received better is because he fervently denied the accusations for so long. This makes the apology seem calculated rather than sincere.
Interestingly, apologies are calculated, even if they must also be sincere to be received. Research shows that chimpanzees apologize, suggesting that the art of apology predates humans. Apology comes from a social need to repair damaged relationships. This repair benefits not only the transgressor, but also the victim. Often, the cost of punishing the transgressor also further hurts the victim. For example, when a good friend wrongs you, the cost of losing the friendship applies to both parties. Apology is a way to minimize damages so that both parties may move forward. Simply put, apology is a necessary aspect of any long-term social interaction.
Ask Men, 4 Steps: Making a Sincere Apology: http://www.askmen.com/money/body_and_mind_150/177_better_living.html
College Monster, Why Over-Apologizing is a Bad Thing: http://college.monster.com/training/articles/1168-why-over-apologizing-is-a-bad-thing
Psychology Today, The science of Effective Apologies: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201012/the-science-effective-apologies
Psych Central, When Sorry is Not Enough: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/12/15/when-sorry-is-not-enough/
Psychology Today, The Power of Apology: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200208/the-power-apology
Live Science, Study Reveals Why Women Apologize So Much: http://www.livescience.com/8698-study-reveals-women-apologize.html
Vanderbilt Law Review, Organizational Apologies: http://www.vanderbiltlawreview.org/content/articles/2011/11/OHara-OConnor_64_Vand_L_Rev_1959.pdf