The Metric of Judging an Apology

The Metric of Judging an Apology

Decades ago, a friend of mine joined a self help organization to get his life in order. He was at a crossroads and wasn’t feeling terribly successful on his journey on the road to self-sustained artistry and the siren song of the Guaranteed Steps to Successful Living sort of thing was too seductive for him to be able to reject. 

After a couple of weeks of seminars and groupthink meetings that always culminated in homework—time management exercises, solidified new routines to employ, daily prompts to encourage productivity—he called and asked if I was available for coffee. 

We met and he sat down. He became rather serious as he slowly intoned, “You owe me an apology.” 

”OK.” I said. “What’d I do?” 

He pulled a small tablet from his bag and read from it that, several years before, I had insulted him during an argument. 

”Uh. Alright. I don’t actually remember saying that but, if it makes you feel any better, I’m sorry if I did.” 

He closed the tablet. We drank coffee. We talked about the kind of stuff you talk about after an awkward exchange, which is to say anything and everything but the thing you just stepped in and out of. 

My grandfather once told me that anyone who demands an apology will never accept one. He added that those who deserve and are open to an apology rarely ask for one.

The question begged is what actual good is an apology given under duress?
"I'm waiting for an apology…" a friend texts.
"If you don't apologize, I'm going to out you on Facebook."

What good is an apology if it does not reflect an actual feeling of regret? It is simply an exercise of power. One person is dominant enough to make the other shoulder the responsibility for an argument or for something having gone wrong. The demand is often a set up for setting the terms of punishment for the offense.

A week later. A couple beers and shots. The tablet comes out. “You owe me an apology.”

”For what?” 

Another thing I said or did that caused hurt feelings or some sort of insult. Again, while I don’t remember doing or saying it, I apologize. 

A month of this routine. At least five apologies for slights I can’t recall. 

Finally. “You owe me an apol—” 

”Stop. OK. Here’s the thing. Open up your notebook and I want you to list everything—everything—you have you need an apology from me for doing, and I’m going to apologize for all of it this one last time. Perhaps I am exactly the massive piece of shit you see me as and, for that, I’ll apologize. Then no more because this is ridiculous.” 

A study that appeared in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research discovered six components of a good apology. While not all apologies had to include all six in order to be effective, researchers found the more components there were, the more likely the apology would be successful:

  1. Expression of regret
  2. Explanation of what went wrong
  3. Acknowledgement of responsibility
  4. Declaration of repentance
  5. Offer of repair
  6. Request for forgiveness

If for some reason, you can't craft an apology with all six components, the researchers say, the most important element is to accept responsibility. Acknowledge that you made a mistake and make it clear that you’re at fault. And never apologize for someone else’s feelings—take full responsibility for your behavior. So rather than say, “I’m sorry if you were hurt by my words,” say, “I’m sorry I said hurtful things.”


What if you honestly don't remember the incident in question? If you accept responsibility for something you can't recall, is it a sincere and forthright apology? 

In an article about Title IX reforms (the Obama administration's attempt to reform the collegiate sexual harassment problems on campus) it is suggested that someone accused should “Admit to yourself that even if you don’t remember the event, or don’t believe yourself capable of hurting someone, that it’s possible that you may have crossed a boundary.”

If someone accuses you of killing someone—a capitol crime—and you have no recollection of doing so and there is no evidence to support the accusation, is the appropriate response "I don't remember the murder but it's possible I did it."? Or is that just a fucking lunatic suggestion? 

As this plays itself out, it becomes even more obvious that an apology has become an admission of guilt, first and foremost.

We don’t speak for a week. At least I don’t have to issue any more apologies. 


”I owe you an apology.” 

”For what—I mean, I’m happy that I don’t owe you another one but what’d you do?” 

”I was supposed to be offering apologies to people I’ve hurt. You know, instead of asking for apologies. I’m sorry.” 

I laughed. “How many other people have you been doing this too?” 

”Just you.” 

”Then you do owe me an apology, you jackass!” 

Here's what we know about the demand for an apology:

  • The human memory is not set in stone and is extremely pliable. Our memories of events are affected by time, distance, the retelling of stories, the media, our diet, our age. Someone waiting, for whatever reason, years to ask for an apology, likely has no true recollection of the incident that spurred on the demand.
  • The demand is not for what we traditionally have been taught—healing, closure, forgiveness. A demand for an apology is about power and assigning guilt and setting up for consequence for responsibility.
  • At this point, if you can't remember what you're accused of or don't think you did it, do not apologize. Even a hint of regret or the possibility of responsibility opens the floodgates of scorched Earth destruction so it's better to deny it than give an inch.
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