An Apologia for Apologies

Few topics are subject to as much motivated cognition as the apology. A great example is the way in which, after someone makes a public apology, commentators will scour through their apology for any imperfection:

“I feel terrible about what I have done” becomes “She’s making it all about herself!”

“At the time I was under a great deal of pressure” becomes “He’s making excuses!”

With laser precise hermeneutics, the critic hunts for any imperfection in the apology. Sometimes it really is a terrible apology, sometimes the imperfection is there but it much slighter than imagined, and sometimes it is not really there at all.

Occasionally you will even see people being offended at the very idea that the transgressor party would offer an apology- for, they reason, to offer an apology is to implicitly assert that this is the kind of wrong that can be fixed through an apology, but in actuality it is far more serious than that.

The effect of all this scrutiny on apologies is that, increasingly, it’s just not worth even trying to apologise, especially in a public setting, but even in private. The rational crook simply holds their chin up, and pretends they’ve done nothing wrong, while those gullible enough to think an apology will help simply create another opening for criticism.

I think the root cause of these kinds of hostile responses is a misunderstanding of what an apology is supposed to do. An apology, or it’s acceptance, does not signal a moment of total forgiveness of the transgressor. Because people have this magical idea of apologies as the moment of complete reconciliation, because they think the role of apologies is greater than it really is, they feel unnecessary pressure to reject them or find some fault in them if they don’t want to totally forgive the apologiser.

In truth, a sincere apology (and most apologies at the very least aren’t completely insincere) always means something, but against the gulf of the wrong, sometimes that something is small, or even infinitesimal. Yet at least that infinitesimal step is an acknowledgement. People often say “Sorry doesn’t cut it”, but it doesn’t have to cut all the way through it to have some meaning. Apologies are what they are- either the beginning of repair, or the cauterising of an ending, or a pause in rage and conflict. Accepting an apology doesn’t obligate you to treat the person who apologised like you did before the wrong act, or even to let them back into your life.

My advice general advice would be, if someone who has wronged you too badly for an apology to fix apologises to you, accept their apology, explain that while you are glad they have apologised it doesn’t mean things are cool, and either move on, or seek greater reconciliation. If you don’t want to say “I accept your apology” because that has connotations of complete forgiveness, instead say “I’m glad you’ve apologised but…” Above all, never punish someone for apologising.

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