The Situational Apology

So, remember when you were a kid – maybe about 6 or 7 – and one day, in a hyperglycemic fit brought on by too much sugar and soda pop at a birthday party or summat, you elbowed a sibling in the nose?

Assuming you weren’t a little turd growing up, what would be the first thing out of your mouth as soon as you found out what you did? “I’m sorry”.  Of course, your hapless sibling’s nose is still bleeding, but the first reaction is to apologize, mostly so that you, too, don’t get elbowed in response.  Because apologizing means taking responsibility for your actions, and that’s something we should all be doing, right?

Of course, if you’re too good at taking personal responsibility for the bad things that happen to you, you may find yourself apologizing for more than your half of the bad situation. The adage goes that if you value your relationship to the other party in dispute, the apology is more important than allocating justice.  So, you’ll say “I’m sorry”, even if you were the one who had his nose elbowed in.

Either way, that’s what’s called a situational apology.  You’re just saying sorry to make peace at the moment to avoid things getting worse.  But the original offence lingers, and doesn’t go away.  This is especially common when either you’re conflict-averse and/or passive-aggressive, or when the offending person is someone close to you and you don’t want to risk losing the relationship altogether by calling them on their offence.  This latter type can get strange: you continue having conversations and ordinary interactions with the offenders days, months, even years afterwards as if nothing happened, but always in the back of your mind (and almost certainly theirs) is the knowledge that they did you wrong.  You’ve let them off the hook, yes, but did you do justice to yourself?

A situational apology can, in fact, make matters worse in the long run, because even with a small amount of hindsight, it looks less and less legitimate as time passes.  As this study in Psychology Today states, three components are necessary for an effective apology: stating regret at the incident, saying the words “I’m sorry” or “We’re sorry”, and then asking the injured party to forgive you or your organization.  If you lack any one or more of those elements, the apology appears insincere, indeed making matters worse.

Often, for liability reasons, you will never see organizations stating “we are sorry for XYZ Incident”, but then again, that’s why, say, whenever a Western soldier kills a civilian in Afghanistan or Libya, the only statement from the military brass is “we regret the incident” and only very seldom a formal, direct “we apologize”.  How much face would a fighting force lose if they admitted mistakes so openly?  How much would a corporation have to lose?

In any case, professional or personal, situational apologies are weak.  They cause wounds to fester. It’s understandable if you’ve gotten into the habit of making them because of your upbringing or personality, but honesty’s always a better policy, even if it leads to more conflict in the short term.  A genuine apology is a way of cleaning the wound, even if there’s more pain and bleeding at the outset: if you were wronged, you stop it from festering: if you did wrong, you help your victim stop it from festering.  Either way, each person does the healing on their own, and is free to pick at the scab or leave it alone as they please, but only if the apology was legitimate, and complete.

Of course, maybe you don’t think you were wrong. Maybe you’re absolutely convinced the other person deserved what they got.  Maybe you really are afraid that such a fight will result in losing your friendship or relationship.  Maybe talking it out is just plain inconvenient for you because you’re both separated by distance and it’s not exactly the type of conversation to have over text or Facebook, but it’ll be a while again until you meet face-to-face. No matter. If any bad feelings still linger, they’ll linger for a long road after the words are forgotten, and then they’ll grow into something else to infect your daily living.

Make it a point never to apologize pre-emptively, ever again. Make it a point to make right by everyone in your life.  And be sure to test your relationships from time to time: if they’re worth keeping, one fight or Great Offscreen War isn’t going to be enough to destroy them, right?

This is just something that’s been on my mind lately. Perhaps it’s also on yours?


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