I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning people throw their entire apologies to the wind through one mistake. While some of these apologies are sincere, others are non-apologies meant to try and appease those they’ve upset as opposed to actually learn from their mistakes. So, here is a little guide to help write a sincere apology and avoid those tropes and pot holes that may make your apology, no matter how sincere, bunk. This is aimed at more mass apologies as opposed to personal ones between one or a few people however that does not mean certain key points here are not applicable.
-Do not trivialize the event.
It doesn’t matter how small the slight you think you made is. You messed up and people told you that you did. Avoid phrases that trivialize the event. Do not talk about how you did not think it would be an issue. Do not talk about how people overreacted. This is not about them, but about you making a mistake. We’re human. We make mistakes. Own up to it, apologize, grow.
-Do not brush off reactions.
Some people react more harshly than others. This does not need to be a note in your apology. An apology is about you, not the people who pointed out your blunder. This includes not sending a thank you only to the people who were kind and nice in their call out. Do not throw those people under the bus. Your apology should make no mention of how people reacted and should be about how you are learning from ALL the reactions that you messed up. Apologies are, once again, about you.
-Do not blame the victim.
If what was said in regards to a person, do not blame this person for existing. For example, many people, offensively, say that Ann Coulter looks like a man or in even worse cases, a t-slur. These statements are obviously transmisogynistic in regards that being either of these things is a bad thing. An apology means understanding that these statements are wrong, regardless of who they are aimed at. A racist, transphobic, sexist, and so on remark, is still all of these things regardless if they are aimed at a terrible person. You are responsible for your words and your actions, the existence of other people does not give you a pass.
-Do not tokenize people.
I’ve written an entire article about the tokenization of relationships. However, this also applies to apologies. Do not include how you have –insert group here- friends, family, coworkers, partners, and so forth. This does not change the fact that YOU messed up, not them. By switching to saying you have some connection to the upset group makes it seem like it is their fault you did not know better. People are not walking encyclopedias who at any moment will toss you tidbits of knowledge. You are responsible for you own education, or in this case, your lack of education. It’s ok to make mistakes. We do not know everything, but do not pin it on others. Tokenization also includes the “well I have X who agree with me” stance.
-Do not blame your ignorance.
Even if you did not know that a certain word was offensive, or a certain comparison is trivializing, your ignorance is not exactly an excuse. I say not exactly because we cannot know everything. However, brushing off what happened as simply ignorance does not leave room for improvement and is just that, an excuse. In this day and age where people can Google “is –insert thing here- offensive?” the ignorance card is overplayed and quite frankly, not good enough. While I feel it is ok to state, “I did not know” that should not be your entire apology. If it was indeed due to ignorance, you may state ONLY as long as you state that you have learned and will remember. Maybe you can even potentially use this as a stepping stone to learn more about the issue at hand.
-Do not deflect
Do not state how there are more important issues at hand. Regardless of how you see it, this is once again not about you and where you believe people should be spending their time and energy. This is about your mess up and that is it. Deflecting onto other issues and topics throws your entire apology out the window. Someone told you that you messed up and that generally means they believe you can learn, educate yourself, and change.
Do not deflect also means not pointing fingers at other people. There may be other people who have been just as bad or worse, but that does not make you exempt from your actions. You are responsible for you and only you. Their behavior is not your behavior. Focus on yourself and what you did.
-Reread, rewrite, edit
Sometimes if we write in the heat of the moment, facts get glanced over and sincere apologies come out like attempting to just save face. If something happens, thank the people who pointed it out (regardless of their attitude/tone) for doing that, and say you are sorry. Do not add “I am sorry you are offended”. This is about YOUR mess up and not their feelings. Do not take too long to apologize though. If an even occurs and you wait several days to a week to apologize, you have missed your chance. People will have solidified an idea in their head and moved on. Apologies need to be prompt, but not so prompt that you glaze over important points.
-State that you learned
Apologies are about stating you messed up and that you know understand where and how you messed up. Apologies are a stepping stone to educating yourself. Do not stop your education at your call out. If you do, you are prone to falling into the same problems again. Say something transphobic without knowing it? Look into transphobic tropes, words, phrases and so on. Commit a microaggression? Look into other microaggressions.
-Use your apology as an open door
Do not stop at your apology! As I said, use it to look into related issues and problems. Thank the people for educating you (regardless of how they did it) and continue your education. However, do not use this as an opportunity to recite facts, things you’ve learned already, and so forth. This makes you seem like you are just spewing facts in an attempt to make yourself look better as opposed to actually learning.
-Thank those who took the time to call you out
Just as this says, say thank you. People took the time to point out you messed up. It does not matter how they did it. Thank them. It is due to them that you know you messed up and now know a new piece of information as well as a starting point in your education.
-Speak from the heart
This is obvious. But mean what you say. Seriously mean it. Remember, apologies are about admitting that YOU were wrong. No one else. Unless you are working for a company/organization, apologies are about your mistake. They are meant to reflect that you understand you messed up, that you plan on doing better, and that you learned from your mistake. It is on you to show your understanding. Apologies are meant to mean you have grown as a person and that you are focused on doing better and most importantly, sorry means not doing it again.
3 thoughts on “How to Form a Sincere Apology”
I think the critical part is here ” to reflect that you understand you messed up, that you plan on doing better, and that you learned from your mistake.” If a person doesn’t actually think they screwed up and/or doesn’t actually care about avoiding such mistakes in the future, an apology isn’t worth anything at all. And also, the onus is on the person apologizing to prove that their apology is genuine. Seems to me a lot of times people, in my experience, think that the are owed forgiveness, which is completely backwards.
Something you might want to add though, because although it follows from having an understanding of the problem and resolving to do better, it seems very not-obvious to so many people: Forcing someone to hear your apology is absolutely not acceptable. If someone is not interested in hearing an apology, that is their choice, their right. To force the issue, to demand that they must hear you out and accept your apology, is not acceptable no matter how badly you want to apologize.
The hurt person (victim) is the one calling the shots, not the one who caused the hurt.
Yes, absolutely. This is why I believe in posting public apologies. It’s out there is someone wishes to see it and can be ignored if people do not wish to see it.