How To Apologise Like You Mean It

How To Apologise Like You Mean It

There’s been another round of dud apologies, and I just don’t get why some people find it so hard to apologise. Perhaps they too have a mother who spent years demanding that they apologise like they mean it. And when (if) they do, it’s often too late – the horse has bolted – the damage is done and repairing the relationship difficult.

Now, I know I am a stubborn old cow, and there have been many times I have refused to apologise or back down because I was embarrassed. There have also been times where I haven’t apologised because I didn’t feel I needed to. But there have also been times where I have apologised simply to save a relationship whether or not I felt it was due. And there have been occasions where I felt I was owed an apology and felt the lack deeply.

What is an Apology

I’ve complained about the conditional “footballer’s apology” that’s not really an apology, but it occurs to me that so few of us know what it is to apologise.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), an apology is “A regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure.”

Apparently, it derives from the Greek apologizesthai to ‘give an account’, and in English comes from the late 16th-century meaning of ‘make a defensive argument’.

And if you don’t know, to regret is to “Feel sad, repentant, or disappointed” which immediately puts the mockers on those call queueing systems that say they regret inconveniencing you (often before unexpectedly cutting you off).

Why Not Apologise

Some people can’t face the embarrassment and won’t apologise. And in some cases, apologies lead to unwelcome consequences like loss of status, business or employment.

That can be difficult, but I feel this one almost directly links up with fear of being held responsible, and as the responsible party, fear of prosecution or litigation.

The University of Queensland’s Assoc Prof Tyler Okimoto found that some people who refuse to apologise feel greater self-esteem and increased power. Which seem like fairly good reasons not to apologise. And I suppose if you don’t mean it…

Leaving aside whether or not you’re sorry, maybe you’re afraid that your “victim” won’t forgive you. Maybe you feel you’ve surrendered your power, and they now have some sort of authority over you. Which I suppose they do if you care about their forgiveness. But I think it’s more like fear of retribution – punishment. There’s something primal in us all that still calls out for it.

Why Apologise

Apologising does have its good points. In the social context, it diffuses the anger against you, minimises your punishment, and permits you to re-enter the social group. Albeit at a lower level for a time.

More importantly, apologising will make you feel better. Not to mention that taking responsibility for your actions gives you the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and become a better, or at the very least more flexible person.

How to Apologise

Apologising is basically saying you’re sorry. And the OED defines sorry as “Feeling regret or penitence.”

1. Express Regret

Repeat after me, “I’m sorry.”

That’s it. You don’t have to say any more.

2. Take Responsibility

Though some circumstances require that you take responsibility;

“I’m sorry that I _____.”

3. Make Reparations

And other (more severe) circumstances require reparation; an attempt to make amends (e.g., pay for repairs or buy a gift.)

“I’m sorry I _____, and I’d like to _____.”

How Not to Apologise

Not apologising is simply a matter of not regretfully acknowledging an offence or failure

“I’m sorry for” is not an apology; it’s an expression of compassion, for example, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“I’m sorry if…” is not an apology either; you’re implying that the other person is too touchy and has no cause to be upset. You might be better to not apologise for your actions if you aren’t sorry for them.

“I’m sorry but…” is also not an apology; you’re implying that the situation is the other person’s fault, and probably that they deserved it.

Getting the Gate Closed Again

We use the expression “closing the gate after the horse has bolted” to say that you’ve tried to prevent something happening but were too late to prevent the damage. A lot of people would say there’s no closing the gate but the Man from Snowy River

And he ran them single-handed till their sides were white with foam.
He followed like a bloodhound on their track,
Till they halted cowed and beaten, then he turned their heads for home,
And alone and unassisted brought them back.

If a fictional folk hero can bring the horses back, we can aspire to it too.

Forgive Yourself

You need to make peace with yourself as well as your “victim”. When you do something “bad” you will feel guilt, which in terms of social cohesion is a good thing. Otherwise, we’d all be running amok saying and doing things regardless of the cost to others.

Just like you don’t need an apology to forgive and move on, you don’t need someone else’s forgiveness before you can forgive yourself and move on. This is your opportunity to do that learning so you can become a new and improved you.

Forgive Your Opponent

Often, when an apology is required, things have been said on done on both sides, and it might be that you just happened to have the last word. So you need to forgive them for what they said and did, as well as for putting you in the position where you felt you had to apologise.

Apologise to the Witnesses

If you have ever seen some sort of altercation, whether that’s between a married couple, your boss and a coworker, or two sports people, you’ll know it leaves everyone feeling unsettled and brutalised. It changes the relationship between the actors and witnesses.

Consider whether you need to seek forgiveness from your witnesses as well; partly for upsetting them, and partly to restore the dignity of your “victim.”


Small offences will often be resolved with a simple I’m sorry, but deeper will take longer and require greater reparation.

A close and strong relationship will bounce back quickly, but a weaker one will also take more time and sacrifice.

Or you may just have to leave it be and wait for healing to take place.

You must move at their pace.

Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria.

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