The Art of the Apology

What do we teach when we order students to apologize?

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

“I’m sorry.” Two small words that, when uttered at the right time and in the right way, carry a big impact. As teachers, we enforce apologies on a regular basis, requiring offenders to atone for their mistakes before moving on to play or otherwise go about their business.

Should we?

On the surface, this seems like a silly question. Of course kids should apologize when they’ve offended or hurt someone! Atoning for mistakes is an important part of learning to be responsible for their behavior and setting things right. In addition, it teaches them social skills and reinforces the expectations we have in a civilized society.

While I would agree with these arguments, I’ve also seen enough muttered, insincere apologies delivered under the watchful eye of an adult to wonder if those things are, in fact, what we’re teaching kids when we order them to apologize.

Think about what you want in an apology. If someone offended you or physically hurt you, would you be satisfied with a forced “sorry” muttered under the offender’s breath? I don’t know about you, but I’m a lot pickier than that.

An apology should be sincere. It should mean something and it should make the situation better, not worse. Here are a few elements that help to ensure that an apology measures up to those standards.

  • It’s voluntary. Involuntary apologies are insincere at best, and, at worst, can make the problem worse by inspiring resentment in the person forced to say I’m sorry. Embarrassed or angry about being called to task by an adult, the person forced to apologize can take out their frustrations on the person they’re supposed to making amends to.
  • It incorporates the words “I’m sorry.” I know this one’s pretty obvious but, if you’ve ever been the recipient of an apology that tries to kinda sorta send the message without actually saying the words, you have some idea of just how important this basic bit of semantics is.
  • It’s delivered by the right person to the right person. I used to joke with my students that it was often the second person who got caught. Frustrated by the person who was bugging them, the victim retaliated, got caught and ended up offering an apology to someone who owed them an apology, too. While this isn’t always the case, it usually takes two to sustain a conflict and before we issue apology edicts, we should know which in which direction — or directions — the apology should travel.
  • It’s not delivered by a third party. This is an extension of the “right person” concept above. The person who messed up should be the person delivering the apology. No fair sending Jenny to tell Brittani that Rachel said she’s really, really sorry.
  • It’s not delivered in the heat of anger. “Well, I’m SORRY!” doesn’t quite deliver a conciliatory message, especially when it’s followed by someone stomping off and, perhaps, yelling a parting shot over his or her shoulder. Sincere apologies require, well, sincerity, not to mention a clear head so that the apology is something the person has decided on as a course of action.
  • It’s delivered in an appropriate tone. Yelling, sarcasm and anything other than a kind or conciliatory tone can undercut even the most carefully chosen words. These kinds of apologies can make the problem worse instead of better, because the off-putting tone contradicts the words and muddles the message.
  • Its words and tone match the body language of the person delivering the apology. This means that the person offering the apology incorporates as much eye contact as an embarrassed offender can muster, along with a posture that invites acceptance rather than fear. Crossed arms, narrowed eyes and other threatening postures have no place in an apology.
  • It carries honest intent not to repeat the behavior in the future. While this doesn’t need to be explicitly stated, the person doing the apologizing should understand that any other kind of apology isn’t really an apology. An iron-clad guarantee isn’t necessary since we are, after all, only human, but apologizing today knowing we intend to turn around and do the same thing again tomorrow makes the apology dishonest. If we have no intention of discontinuing the offensive behavior, why apologize?

Apologies, when delivered with sincerity and contrition, can not only resolve the conflict that occurred, but they can also enhance communication and improve the relationship between those having the disagreement. While this is a lot of pressure to put on two little words, if they’re delivered correctly, they’re more than up to the task.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.

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