The Art of Genuine Apologies

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This doesn’t have a lot to deal with writing.  It could if you want to know how to have a character genuinely apologize.  Mostly, I’ve run into too many people who do these ‘non-apologies’ and then expect forgiveness.  So, I really just want to get this off my chest and then do a ‘7 List’ on Wednesday.

One of the things we try to teach our children when they are young is the phrase ‘I am sorry’.  We want them to accept responsibility for their actions and show that they are sorry for what they did.  We correct them when they use the phrase as a kneejerk reaction or add to it in a way that undoes the effect.  Most parents really try to drill in the concept of being apologetic and accepting responsibility.  Of course, this ends up falling apart as the child gets older and notices that the parent doesn’t practice what they preach.

To be fair, most people will stumble on an apology and undermine their own words.  They do so by:

  • Adding ‘but’ after the apology.  This word means that they still think they’re right.
  • ‘But’ goes right into a rationalization.  It makes it feel like the person is sorry for what they did, but they are sorry that they are in trouble.
  • Shifting the blame is another common addition to an apology.  ‘I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t have done the thing that made me do my thing.’  Very popular among abusive partners and parents.
  • Simply repeating the action that caused the apology again.  I think children pick up on how these apologies are fake quicker than adults.  Children are watching adults for modeling and pick up on patterns with a more analytical mindset than adults who may overthink things.

There are more ways to undermine an apology.  All of them do the same thing though.  I don’t mean just making the apology worthless.  By giving an empty apology, you come off as manipulative.  The person, if they are paying attention, will pick up on the fact that you aren’t really sorry.  This leads to the belief, probably true, that their feelings aren’t being taken into account.  After all, you are reacting to hurt feelings when you are apologizing even if it’s over a physical action.  By rationalizing what you did, you are saying the feelings of your victim doesn’t mean anything.  You’re now more concerned with getting out of trouble and haven’t learned your lesson.

Crying is another thing to factor in when it comes to apologies.  It seems easier to write a character crying while apologizing than for it to happen in real life.  Once tears turn up, you know it has gone to a high level of emotional conflict.  This can go one of two ways:

  1. The crying apologist has now realized the pain they caused and are wracked by guilt for their actions.  If only this was the way it always went.  This is when you know an apology means something and the person will learn from their consequences.  Well, you hope it means that.   We are a cynical species, so there’s a moment of thinking we’re being played.  If the person doesn’t usually do this and stay a wreck for longer than the apology, you can believe it easier.  The fact that #2 exists makes this harder to believe.
  2. We all know what this one is going to be.  The crocodile tears!  A person turns on the waterworks while apologizing, but it’s a defense mechanism.  It isn’t that they feel sorrow or regret.  They’re trying to manipulate the person they hurt by stirring those feelings in them.  It’s a show designed to end the conversation before self-reflection can kick in.  From personal experience, you know this is what is going on when the crying starts almost instantly.  Then, it stops as soon as the confrontation is over and there are no signs of being upset left.  Some people will do this during every apology that is forced out of them too.

Who would thinking apologizing was so complicated and difficult?  When we’re children, it’s made to seem so easy and common.  You get in trouble, you apologize, you think about what you did, and you don’t do it again.  Yet, so many adults don’t follow this system that we expect of our children.  Instead, it’s get in trouble, apologize, rationalize, shift blame, cry if need be, and possibly repeat the action.  Makes me wonder if genuine apologies are a lost art.

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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13 Responses to The Art of Genuine Apologies

  1. Great points, Charles. If you don’t mean the sorry, there’s no point in saying it 💕🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. L. Marie says:

    Great post, especially with the holidays upon us and family get-togethers sometimes lead to pain and apologies. I never like the ones where the person is more “I’m sorry I got caught” than truly repentant. More like “Sor-ree.” As for writing I don’t use a lot of tears, since an abundance of tears in a book never move me. But I included an apology scene, which was really hard to write.

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    • I use tears fairly often. I try to set the tone to make it clear they’re genuinely hurt or remorseful. If they’re not then I have trouble writing the scene.

      Liked by 1 person

      • L. Marie says:

        I don’t write a lot of crying because of the cumulative effect of tears. The more a character cries in a book, the less effective those tears seem. I read a book where the character cried just about every chapter. After a while, I felt annoyed by the crying. But if someone is showing remorse and only cries once in a book, I’m good with that.

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      • Tough call to me. There are people who cry a lot. I don’t do it often though. I wait for the right moment.

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  3. This is something we work on so hard in schools. It’s easy with something like a broken crayon, but when you get beyond that, into people feeling neglected or manipulated, there’s a lot more counseling and discussion and mediation that has to go on. Especially if the adults in the family aren’t good at being sincere, the child has to try and build that on their own.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In today’s world, apologies are becoming a rare item. Admitting a wrong is almost like admitting weakness. Good discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My favorite is, “I ‘want to’ apologize to you for…” It means they aren’t actually apologizing at all. It seems like the Japanese court system deals with some of this, but it’s been too many years since I heard about it to comment intelligently.

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