There is an old rhyme that begins with: For the want of a nail…and ends with (through the domino effect) …a kingdom was lost. In recent days, there has been a situation where: For the want of an apology….a Parliament was adjourned. This was caused by the obdurate demand for an apology by one side in confrontation, with the equally intransigent refusal to apologize by the other.
Saying “sorry” is probably the simplest and oldest form of an apology. An apology is defined as a regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure. In an age where increasingly the ‘self’ rules the stage, where a sense of entitlement dominates much of human engagement, and where aggression and intimidation are a part of day-to-day life, this kind of acknowledgement is sometimes perceived as a form of cowardice or a sign of a non-confrontational (passive) person. This avoidance or denial of acknowledgement of wrong may spark off immediate confrontations that may spiral out of control, or a festering of resentment that plants the seed of future ‘revenge’. This holds true for individuals, communities and even countries.
Karina Schumann, an Associate Professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh has been researching and writing about factors that help people successfully manage their conflicts and respond to challenging social interactions in pro-social ways. Her work focusses on apologies as a key factor in this area. It looks at different kinds of apologies from inter-personal one-on-one apologies, to institutional apologies, to public apologies, particularly by politicians.
In the case of interpersonal conflicts Dr Schumann’s research indicates that a common response that we have when we’ve done something wrong is, ‘this does not feel good to us, we want to push away blame from ourselves’. And we can do this in a variety of ways. We blame the other person, we blame the situation, we think about all the extenuating circumstances that affect our behaviour, or we minimize the consequences of our actions for that other person.
Often apologies take the approach that “Well if you are offended, I’m sorry.” This implies somewhere that while the offender is expressing remorse or sympathy for the fact that the recipient felt bad, he or she is not really taking responsibility or accountability for the offense. This is a way of justifying our actions while morally disengaging ourselves. This kind of apology, in some ways, tries to shift the blame onto the victim. The apologies on social media during the MeToo movement are examples of this kind of apology. One key factor for this attitude is the lack of empathy with the person one has offended.
A sincere apology does not make justifications for the behaviour the person is apologizing for, and does not blame the victim. The person offering the apology does not excuse their own behaviour. An acceptance of responsibility is core to an apology.
Public apologies happen on the public stage, often delivered in some sort of official way, like a government apologizing on an official stage for a historical injustice. Sometimes corporations might put out a statement of apology to their consumers or clients. Sometimes celebrities apologize, and politicians apologize for their own misdemeanours. These are sometimes issued through an official press conference or via Twitter or YouTube. These apologies are issued in a reactive way. Research indicates that people are generally sceptical about such apologies. It is assumed that they are being offered for strategic reasons as opposed to sincere reasons, or that the public figures were pressured into it, and they have ulterior motives. To come across as meaningful, the quality of public apologies must meet a higher bar than an interpersonal apology.
Whether personal or public, to be genuinely accepted an apology must communicate empathy and concern. It is not enough to say “I am sorry”. The messages that should come across are: “I care about you. I care about our relationship. I want to make this better”. They should send a signal: “We care about this. This matters. We are committed to doing better.”
An apology can be the first step in initiating the process of forgiveness.
A beautiful passage from one of my favourite authors Alexander McCall Smith tells us how:
Forgiveness is at the heart of the way we live our lives–or should be. So when we teach our children about the things they ought to know about the world—about how not to touch fire, about how to wash their hands, or put on their shoes—all these things, we should also remember to teach them about forgiveness. We must teach them that when another person wrongs us—hurts us perhaps—we should not strike back, but should be ready to forgive. We must teach them that if we do not forgive them, then we run the risk of being eaten up with hatred inside, and that hatred is like acid, that it will grow and gnaw away. That is why forgiveness must be taught at the beginning, when we are teaching them about these first things.
Today, more than ever before, the world is in desperate need of empathy and forgiveness. The seeds need to be sown early, and nurtured with compassion.