In an ideal world, everyone that causes harm to another, either intentionally or unintentionally, would immediately offer up a genuine apology: accepting responsibility, acknowledging the pain, express empathy and remorse, immediately changing behavior and, if appropriate, making amends for the damage caused. But we know that rarely happens. And it never happens as quickly as we would like.
Instead, we receive a “sorry” tossed out with little thought and nothing to back it up. We hear, “I’ll do better” and better never comes. We may find that in place of an apology, we instead receive blame and misplaced anger as defensiveness leads instead of empathy. The apology may be discounted by the excuses that accompany it. We may see an utter lack of comprehension at the pain that was inflicted. Or we may just be listening to radio silence, waiting for an apology that never comes.
An apology that maybe we don’t even need.
Why do we want apologies?
Children are taught almost as soon as they can talk to say “Please” when they want something, “Thank you” when they receive something and “I’m sorry” when they hurt someone. At the most surface level, we view an apology as a basic ritual of societal order that preserves a sense of fairness and responsibility.
Apologizing has become almost a knee-jerk reaction for many. How often have you bumped into somebody or inadvertently cut someone off with your grocery cart and had the word, “Sorry” out of your mouth without thinking? Even in such a minor interaction without much empathy or remorse behind the word, the apology still carries importance. When it is uttered, it acknowledges the infraction and its impact on the other person. When nothing is said, the other person feels invisible and insignificant.
At its most basic, an apology says, “I see you.”
And a lack of an apology is a passive rejection.
What do we expect from apologies?
Pain wants to be heard; the need for our suffering to be acknowledged drives our need for an apology. And the greater the perceived damage, the greater the perceived need for an apology. We all have an inherent sense of fairness, a balance of how things “should” be. When someone harms us, that balance is disrupted and we presume that an apology will make strides towards correcting that imbalance and restoring a sense of fairness.