Even before cancel culture rebranded angry mobs into righteous crusaders punching up at minor celebrities and white women, the ability to display authentic remorse through the medium of apology was a powerful tool for mitigating the natural consequences of unmeasured words and deeds. In the information age, the ability to craft a killer apology has taken on a new power, and that is what I want to explore in this article.
Personal disclosure: as an extraterrestrial invader in a human skin suit, admitting fault is not something that comes naturally to me. My natural perspective of human morality is that it’s great for other people but I’d much rather unapologetically act in ways that further my own self interest. If somebody stood between me and a goal, and got hurt as a consequence, well that was just bad decision making on their part. What I’ve come to learn is that apologizing to people you’ve harmed, particularly when it served a purpose and you would do it again in a heartbeat, is more than some arbitrary cultural artifact. It is also good strategy for self advancement. Not only does it mitigate the costs of your selfish choices, but a well thought out apology can repair a relationship to a degree where it is even stronger than if you hadn’t harmed them in the first place.
Taking it Personally
The modern zeitgeist is all about being outraged. People are upset that the world is burning, they’re upset that they have to wear masks, they are upset that other people aren’t wearing masks, they are upset that there is sickness, they are upset that there is a vaccine, they are upset that people want to take their guns, they are upset that people want to murder them with guns, they are upset that trans people want to go to the toilet, they are upset that men are raping them, they are upset that women are upset about getting raped. With so much to be upset about, people are getting very good at being offended and writing anything that offends them into a narrative of systemic oppression against them and people like them. That isn’t just forgetting to load the photocopier. It’s a microaggression and a gender-normative act of cultural violence in a post-colonial expression of inaction.
Ideally, we would all live a life where we don’t need to apologize for anything because we never do anything wrong. That’s great in theory but it isn’t the world we live in. The world we live in is one of inconsistently applied moral absolutes where identity determines expectation and expectation is reality. Sometimes you are going to be in the wrong simply because of the way you look or the beliefs you are assumed to hold. There is simply no way to exist without it offending somebody. So the first step in mastering the apology must be to determine when an apology is in fact necessary.
Not every wrong warrants an apology. The goal in this step is to quickly assess the merits of a complaint and whether reconciliation is achievable or even desirable. Ultimately this decision will come down to your own personal values. As a general guide, when a person is upset with you for something outside of your control such as your gender, race or neurotype then it is generally best to allow that person to remove themselves from your life. If the cause of the offense is ignorance: perhaps they have incorrectly attributed malice to your actions or you have misread the situation and said or done something which has inadvertently caused harm to them. These situations tend to be more salvageable, though repeat apologies result in diminishing returns. It is also wise to consider the value this person may bring to your life if the friendship can be restored. In the case of an angry twitter mob, the value of reconciliation may simply be permission to live your life without daily death threats.
Always confirm that the relationship is valuable before you try to save it. When you know their value to you, the work of reconciliation feels like an investment rather than a chore.
Make sure the victim feels heard. Ask where you went wrong and how it affected them. When somebody is telling you about how your behavior has affected them it is important to let them speak and get it all out. Ask guiding questions to encourage them to explain how they took your behavior and turned it into something that was causing them emotional pain. Let’s say a romantic partner is upset because they caught you cheating on them, get them to be clear if they are upset because they felt entitled to a sexual monopoly on your body or if the main injury is from the sense of betrayal or loss of trust because of a deliberate deception. This step is important for helping the victim move on from the pain but more importantly it can sometimes force them to look at their own emotional process, and there’s nothing that kills passion quite like examining why you are feeling it. During this step, I generally maintain a dispassionate position, keeping my face and body language fairly neutral and maintaining elevated levels of eye contact. I want the person to feel like their complaint is being heard but I am also looking to get them to a space where they exhaust their emotions in an absence of high intensity feedback.
It isn’t enough to simply understand how a person is feeling. You need to ensure that they feel that you understand them. Sometimes a person who feels they are not heard will go on tangents and bring up complaints from previous arguments. While it is tempting to try to focus them on just this most recent offense, instead encourage them to explain how they perceive these problems as connected. Aim to get the most cohesive picture of the deeper issues that you can achieve rather than being quick to present a solution.
When they’ve run out of words, just let the silence sit. You can say you need a moment to think if you need to but just create a quiet space for a small amount of time. If the victim has unloaded years or even generations of problems in the previous step it is appropriate to request a few days to process but if they’ve stayed on the topic of a single transgression then this shouldn’t take more than a minute. By the end of step one, the victim has expressed the feelings that needed to be expressed. Because people have this hardwired concept of reciprocity, after they’ve said their piece people will generally yield the floor to a rebuttal and because you’ve sat there calmly listening to them and encouraging them to explore the specifics of the event they will often feel that they owe you a similar treatment for your response. This creates an interesting tension where you could be completely justified in pointing out all of their failings and they’d be obliged to sit there and take it. I’m not sure what triggers this but I’ve seen it over and over. It’s like you now have the power to turn everything back on them and they’re holding their breath to see if you do. This is a small space in time but I think it warrants its own step because it is critical in controlling the power dynamic of the in-person apology.
The power of silence should not be underestimated
At this point in the interaction, you should defy expectation and go for the apology instead of the conflict, but never a full apology for everything. I recommend you instead go through the entire story and find the parts for which you can claim responsibility for carelessness or deceitfulness while also pointing out information that you couldn’t possibly know or areas where the facts they’ve received from elsewhere are not reliable. Generally your apologies should look like “I did not realize / It was not my intention that X would result in you feeling Y and I am sorry for my part in you feeling this way”. These are very specific apologies and will generally come with an implementable plan to address that one specific thing “now that I know that you prefer me to be honest than try to protect you from a painful truth I will tell you immediately if something similar happens in the future”. The target of this step is to creates a sense that the problem has been resolved and that it all came down to a conflict of communication.
The actionable part of an apology is key. It needs to be specific enough to be falsifiable and also narrow enough that you don’t need to alter your entire life to accommodate it. Over commitment at this stage results in a net reduction of trust if you are unable to deliver on your promises so it is important to be both specific and realistic about the kinds of changes you are genuinely capable of making.
After communicating the apology section I recommend leaving a space open for the victim to claim some of their own responsibility. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s that reciprocity thing again. At the beginning of the interaction they were the furious wronged party and at the end they are apologizing for jumping to conclusions or blowing things out of proportion. I often have people I have wronged thanking me at this point in the interaction.
It takes a lot of courage to confront somebody who has wronged you. People who’ve been victims of abuse in particular will feel a great deal of tension when attempting to tell somebody that they’ve done something wrong. It is likely that there is a part of them that expects to be punished for speaking up. Defying that expectation can create a sense of euphoria in them which results in a relationship-enhancing attribution which is the main predictor of relationship longevity.
Something I’ve noticed in situations where I’ve used this approach is that if the initial wrongdoing is something that the relationship can survive, this process will strengthen the relationship overall and result in a deeper level of commitment. Assuming you bring more value than cost to a person’s life (and why else would they have you in it?) then a single fuck up destroying the relationship entirely won’t be what they want and they are going to be willing to collaborate with you in rebuilding the relationship because they want to repair the damage and if you can provide a path for that to happen they will be happy to suspend their disbelief and try to make it work. If you commit the same wrong again it will be harder to resolve but this approach will at least buy more time in a relationship that is beneficial to you.
Crying during an Apology
Displaying emotional sensitivity during an apology is a double edged sword at best. In person these things can be difficult to avoid but sometimes pushing through them and trying to resolve a genuine problem through a mess of ugly tears or raised voices doesn’t tend to benefit the process. If you are unable to hold back tears it is okay to ask for a break and a hug (depending on the nature of the relationship) and then return to the conversation when you have regained your composure.
The tearful apology video response to being cancelled has become a staple form of dramatic monologue, but in a medium where creators have access to editing tools, a solid four minutes of watching somebody cry can feel a bit like a poor attempt at manipulation. A more sincere looking way to demonstrate being emotionally impacted is to begin to cry part way through a sentence and then jump cut to continuing the monologue with red eyes and smeared makeup. This still conveys that you are distraught that your online support network has turned on you for inadvertently doing a collaboration with an imperfect human or charitable entity, but it appears less purposefully manipulative.
Reconciliation after an altercation isn’t always a possibility. If the consequences of your actions are already set in motion: you are already getting fired or the breakup is immanent then crying have provide some benefit. A tearful breakup because your partner has strict rules for themselves that they can’t stay with somebody who has cheated on them can set the groundwork for a “soft” breakup where you’re technically breaking up but doing it in stages so you have time to set up a replacement. Meanwhile, some good ugly crying can disgust an employer enough that they end up saying something you can use against them later during an unfair termination settlement. If you cry while somebody is still mad it is a pretty good way of making them feel powerful and they’ll sometimes overreach and end up putting themselves in a legally vulnerable position.
It should be noted though that emotional manipulation really only works on people who are attracted to codependent style relationships where one person takes personal responsibility for the emotional state of the other. This type of relationship is commonly deemed “unhealthy” by people who aren’t attracted to that kind of relationship (they call their own attachment style “healthy” without any hint of irony). You really need to know your audience before attempting to play on their emotions. The genuine understanding approach I’ve described is a safer option in the majority of cases, particularly in professional contexts or when the target audience of your apology is a diverse group of people with a range of attachment styles.
It is my sincere hope that this article is helpful to you in whatever circumstance you’ve found yourself in that requires an apology. Regardless of if your apology is accepted this time or not, these are skills that are valuable to develop and practice. And if you’ve found anything I’ve said offensive in anyway, I offer you my sincere apologies for any harm caused.