Why can’t we just apologize?

A colleague says unkind things about you behind your back and you hear about it. She comes to you and says, “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” How does that feel? Now consider the same scenario but this time she says, “I’m sorry that I hurt you.” This feels better, doesn’t it? What a difference a small word can make!

Even before the Amish community’s response to the murders at the Nickel Mines school, the concept of forgiveness had been getting a great deal of attention in academic and popular venues. But what about apology? What makes up an apology, and what is its role? And why is a real apology so hard, and so rare?

The first scenario above is often passed off as an apology in today’s world, but it isn’t, not really. The offender has not fully acknowledged the harm, nor has she taken real responsibility. Her response is too easy and incomplete to be a satisfactory apology.

Nicholas Tauvis, in his book Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation, has provided a thorough exploration of apology. He argues that its role is critical in repairing relationships because it has the power to both rehabilitate a wrongdoer and to restore social harmony. Paradoxically, it helps to undo that which cannot be undone.

Religious traditions differ on whether real forgiveness is possible without an apology. All would probably agree, however, that an apology is desirable and helpful in the movement toward forgiveness. Tauvis argues that apology is the middle part of a three-part moral equation that starts with a call for repair or justice and ends with a response – to either forgive or reject the apology. An apology, then, often prepares the way for forgiveness.

A genuine apology has several basic components. First, it requires the apologizer to name the harm that he or she has done. Second, he must express genuine sorrow and regret for his actions and the hurt they have caused. Ideally, he would then also ask for forgiveness and pledge to avoid such behavior in the future.

An apology might include an explanation or account of what happened, but it must go further; as Tauvis puts it, an apology begins where an account ends. That is, to truly apologize is to acknowledge that, regardless of the explanation of what happens, one has no excuse or justification for what he has done.

Obviously apology is not easy. Real apology requires painful remembering and retelling. Apology also involves vulnerability: it requires us to acknowledge that we did something wrong and, in doing so, calls attention not only to what we have done but who we are. Because it is painful and potentially humiliating, says Tauvis, apology is in fact a form of self-punishment.

Apology is especially difficult if we believe our intentions in doing the act were honorable. Yes, I acknowledge that my actions had harmful consequences but I did not foresee them and didn’t intend to hurt you. Most of us do not deliberately do harm; we believe our overall intentions are good and thus apology becomes especially difficult. The acknowledgement of harm directly threatens our self-image as an essentially good person.

Apology may be difficult but the formula is quite simple: an apology requires us to name and take responsibility for the harm, acknowledge that it was wrong, express our regret for our actions and their effects, and seek to prevent such wrongs in the future. In a restorative justice framework, we would take it one step further: we would try to repair the harm to the extent it is possible. Dutch law professor Herman Bianchi has suggested that this is where forgiveness comes in: forgiveness does not eliminate accountability but forgives the difference between what one can do to make things right and what cannot be made right.

Next time someone in the news apologizes…next time someone apologizes to you…next time you apologize to someone, take a careful look. Are they, are you, naming the harm and taking responsibility for it? Are they, are you, expressing genuine regret and committing to avoid such behavior in the future? If not, wounds are unlikely to be healed. If so, an opening is being provided where the miracle of forgiveness and even reconciliation can happen.

14 comments on “Why can’t we just apologize?”

  1. paulette moore says:

    Yay! Howard is blogging!!! This is great – I hope I am your first visitor!

  2. Rita Schwarzenberger says:

    Howard, congratulations on your blog. Your thoughts are pertinent, especially now with so much other ‘stuff’ going on in so many places. Easy (sometimes) to say ‘sorry about that’ but real apology is much more, as you say. Well done.

  3. Charito Calvachi-Mateyko says:

    Dear Howard:

    How refreshing will be to have your thoughts to keep us going in a restorative way!

    No revictimaze the victim is key in this process. However, I hava a case in which a person is so much hurting that can not bring himself to accepting a restorative process. Can you speak someday about how to help a person to be open to restoration?


  4. Esueme Kikile says:

    Thanks Howard and all the hardworking people at the CJP.It is wonderful to read you and to get your voice across to thousands who are in need of apologies due to divergent reasons ranging from state inflicted causes or society inflicted ones.Will keep this process of restorative justice going.Congrats,Howard

  5. jef from says:

    Thanks, Howard.

    I remember you bringing up the topic of apology before, so it must be something that you are still working on. I will offer a thought.

    Apology is hard. In some way it is acknowledging that the one who harmed violated the relationship or social norm. It also points out the power over which the “apologizer” had or has over the person whom they are apologizing to and therefor running the risk of offending again. What is this power we give to violation?

    I have thought about what Howard has shared most of today and I feel an anxiousness as I am trying to respond. Words are clumsy. What it comes down to for me is that there are complications because of the expectations that are created in relationship and perception of norms and social contracts.

    Taking the example that Howard starts off with where a co-worker is gossiping behind another’s back. We are taught in therapy, psychology and peacebuilding that what people say, hurts us because we give them the power to hurt us. We create the expectation that we need to be held with respect by those we work with. In looking at the difference between “I am sorry that I hurt you” and “I am sorry if I hurt you,” the later can seem to offer more autonomy to the receiver of the apology. There are of course times when “that I hurt you” would be more appropriate, especially if the person harmed has acknowledged the hurt.

    Please respond. This is just one thought that is in my mind and I do believe that I have enough experience in RJ to know that this is not the only way to think about this, so shoot me down. My expectation is a dialogue.

  6. David Fisher says:

    While I don’t know Howard, I’ve done some work at CPJ. Responding to jef, it seems to me that a difference between feeling hurt by someone (and potentially “giving them the power to hurt us”) and being hurt by someone going to another person behind the back has to do with the relationship itself being harmed. If a friend or coworker, with whom I have a trust relationship of some significance, goes behind my back our relationship is robbed of greater depth and trust because the friend or coworker chose not to risk by coming to me, and thus it is our relationship that is hurt/harmed. And though I may never actually know this has happened, it seems to me it changes the relationship. And if I do find out before an apology, I will likely feel hurt, because whatever trust level there was between us has been violated. What do you think? (I’m a MBTI extrovert who thinks out loud or in writing!)

  7. Howard Zehr says:

    Michael McCullough, in Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, explores the evolutionary psychology and neurobiology of revenge and forgiveness.

    Chapter 8 includes an interesting section on apology (as well as one on restorative justice). He says that linguists have identified some key components in apology that cut across cultures. These can be summarized as 1) acknowledging the offense, 2) offering an explanation, 3) communicating remorse, shame, sincerity, and 4) offering reparation. McCullough says the more of these features the transgressor offers, the more the victim sees the act as forgivable.

    He explores the benefits of apology: 1) They help restore a victim’s self-respect and dignity. 2) They provide assurance that offender and victim share the same moral universe. 3) They reassure victims that the wrong was not their fault. 4) They provide reassurance that wrong will not be repeated. 5) They make the wrongdoer suffer. 6) They hold out the possibility of some reparation, even if partial and symbolic.

    I am convinced that the dynamics of honor and shame are central to the experience of both victim and offender. (See, for example, “The Journey to Belonging” in Restorative Justice: Theoretical Foundations, edited by Weitekamp and Kerner.) But especially interesting is the observation that the victim needs to know the response is not easy. McCullough argues that apology satisfies a deep need to know that the offender is suffering and in doing so, may cause victims to feel empathy for the offender. This in turn deters revenge and promotes forgiveness. This has significant implications for some of ongoing debates in restorative justice about punishment, reparations and forgiveness.

    While this comment isn’t directly responsive to the comments that have been submitted so far, I hope it is of some interest. In a future posting I hope to explore a bit more the relations between revenge, retribution and restorative justice.

  8. Jacqueline Roebuck Sakho says:

    Wow Howard! First the iphone now this.

    i believe human beings are wired for apology and forgiveness. however the social contruction of shame and humiliation can act as barriers making it difficult to tap into our sameness and oneness.

    you’re still my professor so try to disregard the grammatical errors. just tell me later.

    be well

  9. Katherine Griffis says:

    Howard did ask, “How does that make you feel?” concerning the first version of the apology. Obviously two letters can make a big difference (that is, the two letters “IF”, not Jef’s and David’s replies). I think David has diagnosed the difference correctly. To say “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” is often to say “I’m sorry if my actions hurt your feelings.” The onus is then on the other person to say either “Yes you did or “No you didn’t.” The all-to-easy implication is, “It’s a shame that you’re so thin-skinned as to have been bothered by my words.” The fault then lies with the “thin-skinned” other, not the one supposedly offering an apology, who can then go back to the same people and say, “Can you believe how she took what I said?” Even if the “hurt” involved is other than emotional, the same argument applies: the speaker is suggesting that any damage is incidental and not a necessary result of the speaker’s original actions.
    I sympathize, at least from one angle, with Jef’s focus on the autonomy involved in using “if.” I grew up with a wonderful mother who used to say (and still does), “You could set the table if you’d like.” I used the same locution with my husband when we were first married, trying to let him know I wasn’t putting pressure on him. It took many fights before I realized that, without speaking for my mother’s motives, in my own case at least what I meant was, “Please set the table (and by the way, please do it NOW).”
    As David says, the second version of the apology has at least the potential to mean, “I recognize that my actions have violated something in our relationship. Whether or not you have learned of them, and however you may feel about them, I have harmed you and I am sorry.” It has the further potential to mean, “I’m sorry for the harm that my comments have caused you in other ways — by damaging your relationship with the people to whom I made the comment; by costing you that promotion you wanted; by ….”
    Speaking from a Christian perspective, the biblical notion of repentence involves a turning away from one path and turning toward another. The word “apology” carries many meanings, but its basic Greek components refer to turning or moving away (apo-) from a word, thought or purpose (logos). We can turn from our previous words and actions; we then have to decide what we’re turning toward.

  10. Federico Reggio says:

    Thankyou Howard for sharing such interesting thoughts, and, most of all, for the idea of starting a blog!
    Two brief reflections come to my mind, now, and I would like to share them in this space.

    1) many times – at least here in Italy – when a serious crime happens, someone (often a journalist) comes to the victim or to the victims’ relatives, right a few days after the fact, and asks (holding a microphone and a camera): “are you going to forgive the offender”?
    Often a ‘yes’ comes out from the victims’ mouth (or teeth), leaving a doubt to the spectators: has this ‘yes’ been extorted? (by exposing victims to a moral judgement in case of a denial of forgiveness?)
    When a ‘no’ is said, instead, you may ask yourself whether such an insensitive question has precluded a future ‘journey’ towards a possible (and real)forgiveness. Treating as banal something which is all but banal is the best way to obtain a closure.
    What lacks in this picture – moreover – is that such a question has no relationship with another element: apology. The strange thing, in facts, is that, while the question about forgiveness is pretty frequent, it is almost impossible to read about (acknowledged) offenders who have been asked about their intention of providing an apology.
    Such a situation provides a ‘distortion’ of the concept of forgiveness:
    – it hides the fact that it’s a long and hard ‘journey’;
    – that it is a journey that is partially internal to someone’s counscience, but that has also a relational web (as the harm had);
    – it breaks the relationship between apology and forgiveness.

    Why? Maybe, in a highly relativistic world like ours, where the dominant culture thinks that no-one can really tell whether some actions are wrong or not, apology is an unconfortable concept. Forgiveness remains important in order to assure a social-peace (the dismissal of a revenge-claim). Apologizing, instead, requires that there ‘is’ something to apologize for, requires recognizing that a ‘wrong’ has been done, and that it calls for a responsibility.
    Rediscovering the role of apology, therefore, is a very important step towards a re-discovery of a moral responsibility.

    2) A few years ago I wrote an essay about G.B. Vico’s conception of punishment. There is something really close to what you reminded about apology as a form of self-punishment.
    Vico (+1743) thought that the essence of punishment is “prave facti conscientia” – the counscience of having done something wrong. Such a counscience, Vico argues, has both a personal and an inter-personal dimension (‘counscience’ derives from the latin ‘cum-scire’, “to know with”, so you can be fully counscious of something only when you share such a knowledge with someone). Taking account of the harm done, and of the moral wrong that it embodied, is, according to Vico, the real punishment, apparently a light one, but, actually, the hardest one, since no ‘human’ penalty can fully substitute it.
    Vico’s conception does not openly take into account the possibility of reparation as a goal of a reaction to crime, nor apology and forgiveness as the highest example of a restored state of justice (he wrote in the XVIII century!): still, by reminding that when a harm happens the goal of justice is “reponere” and “vindicare”, he used two latin words who have a double-sided meaning:
    “vindicare”: to revenge, to revindicate (but also) to protect, to rehabilitate, to warrant;
    “reponere”: to react, to counter-act, to restitute (but also) to repair, to restore.
    Vico did not clearly explain which of the two sides of these meanings is preferrable; neither he explained whether he intended that both have to be there in a reaction to a harm done.
    What I take as a very interesting reminder, is the idea of a ‘couscience of the harm done’: you can never know (and restore) the harm without taking into account the relationship with the person which has been harmed.
    This helps us thinking that the ‘essence’ of a harm is never a purely material damage, rather is the denial of the inner dignity that each one has: a dignity that places each person in a dialogue that should never be interrupted, and, if so, that has to be restored.

  11. This is particularly helpful insight for situations I am facing at work. I will share pieces of this with two of my clients, their families, and my colleagues next week. Thank you for your thoughts – I look forward to reading more!

  12. Vicki Sanderford O'Connor says:

    Refreshing! Like water for a thirsty soul. Thank you Howard.

  13. Hello Howard. Thank you for starting a blog. We will all benefit from your wisdom.

    One thing that comes to mind when talking about apologies is what I learned from my Maori colleagues while in New Zealand. I learned that in the Western world we tend to look at apologies on an individual level. However, we overlook how often we have created social and cultural systems that cause harm to people (i.e., the latest financial crisis). We seem to ignore the need for apologies on behalf of these systems.

    However, that is not always the case. For instance, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a public apology on behalf of the government for its treatment of the Aboriginal people in the past.

    I believe we fall into the trap of couching our thinking as the legal system directs us. In that way we look for the individual to blame for the harm. I found with Maori that they start with the idea of collectively how have we as a family (whanau), extended family (hapu), and tribe (iwi) contributed to the behavior that caused the harm in this instance. And an elder (kaumatua) of the group will offer an apology to those harmed on behalf of group.

    As I read Wilkinson’s “The Impact of Inequality” it is becoming more and more clear to me that the choices we have made as a society in the United States have had a significant impact on the breakdown of social relationships.

    So while individual apologies are a necessary ingredient of healing the harm resulting from wrongdoing, I believe we need to also look closely at the need for apologies on behalf of systems that support a dominance hierarchical society that creates great disparities.

  14. Thanks Howard this is exellent stuff! I’ll certaily be using these reflections in our work

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