Offering an apology can often feel uncomfortable because it puts us in a place of vulnerability.
What if you admit error and the other person takes the opportunity to pile on? What if your apology exposes you to public shaming? What if you're forced to see something about yourself you didn't want to see?
But learning how to give an authentic apology can do wonders for yourself and for the other person. As communication experts and co-authors of "Say the Right Thing," we've found that people who are good at saying "sorry" avoid two words: "if" and "but."
Here's why they make you sound fake and insincere:
When you use "if" to qualify your apologies, you are questioning the recipient's reaction to the wrong, rather than to the wrong itself.
At its worse, "if" seeks to shift the blame, effectively saying: "I'm sorry if you're so tightly wound that you can't see your reaction is overblown."
Yet even in the most generous interpretation, where the apologizer is genuinely uncertain about the harm, these "ifpologies" could still benefit from more curiosity. You're unsure whether someone is hurt, so why not just ask?
When you make an apology that starts with "I'm sorry, but…," you not only seek to duck responsibility, but you also suggest the harm could happen again.
For example, if you say, "I'm sorry, but I was having a miserable morning," the other person could wonder if you'll repeat your behavior when you have another bad day. Another classic form of a "butpology" that attempts to excuse wrongdoing is, "I'm sorry, but I didn't mean it."
Providing context for your actions can be helpful. Depending on how severe your behavior was, the other person might feel less of a negative impact if they learn you were going through a difficult patch and acted out of character.
When tempted to offer an explanation, the best question is whether you're offering it for yourself or for the other person. Are you saying, "Please excuse my behavior because it wasn't the real me," or are you saying, "It was the real me, but not the me I aspire to be." Make sure you know the difference.
Imagine you're at work and you confuse two colleagues of the same ethnicity with each other.
You might say something like: "I'm sorry for getting your names mixed up. I realize I embarrassed you and reinforced stereotypes. I'll try hard to ensure it doesn't happen again."
This simple apology satisfies what we call the four Rs:
This is about recognizing the harm. Showing recognition means avoiding "ifpologies" such as "I'm sorry if I did anything wrong" or "I'm sorry if you're upset."
Accept the harm you caused. Don't use "butpologies" such as "I'm sorry, but I was having a miserable day," "I'm sorry but I didn't mean it," or "I'm sorry, but I'm not a racist."
Express genuine contrition for causing harm. Don't try to justify your actions, and don't overdo the remorse by berating yourself.
Remorse isn't characterized by any particular form of words. What's important is that you mean what you say.
Redress means taking action to correct the harm. Research indicates that pairing an apology statement with redress is more likely to lead to forgiveness than offering a statement alone.
The challenge is that it can require substantial time and energy. And a long-lived obligation created by an apology might make it harder to give. But there is the potential for real growth, understanding, and change on the other side.
David Glasgow is the founding executive director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, an adjunct professor at New York University School of Law, and co-author of the book "Say the Right Thing: How to Talk about Identity, Diversity, and Justice." David graduated with a BA in philosophy from the University of Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter.
Kenji Yoshino is the Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law at NYU School of Law and the Director of the Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, and co-author of "Say the Right Thing." A graduate of Harvard, Oxford and Yale, he specializes in constitutional and anti-discrimination laws. Yoshino has published in major academic journals, including the Harvard Law Review, the Stanford Law Review, and the Yale Law Journal. Follow him on Twitter.
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*This is an adapted excerpt from "Say the Right Thing: How to Talk about Identity, Diversity, and Justice" by David Glasgow and Kenji Yoshino, published by Atria Books. Copyright © 2023 by David Glasgow and Kenji Yoshino.