Friday, September 16, 2011

Why do people apologize?

I'm sort of known for not being big on apologies. It's not that I don't like to admit/vocalize it when I've done something wrong, it's that most of the time, I'm not really convinced that I've done something wrong, so it feels hollow, and I hate empty gestures. Also, even when I think that I've been wronged, I'm not super impressed with apologies. If it's a small transgression, I'd rather the person just acknowledge that it bothered me and try not to do it again. (Doesn't it seem like effusive apologizers are often the worst repeat offenders?) If it's a big transgression, apologies are beside the point: You fucked up bad, game over, etc.

It's not that I never feel sorry, it's just that my moral compass doesn't shift around all that much. I mean, I think about what I'm going to do or say before I do or say it (or, you know, have the illusion that I do; let's not turn this into an argument about free will), and apply said moral compass before the fact. Most of the time, if something reads WRONG, I don't do it in the first place. That way, I minimize both guilt and regret (feelings I despise). Obviously, other people in my life may disagree with the settings; they may feel I've done wrong by their lights and demand apologies, but saying "I'm sorry" when I don't believe I've done anything wrong by my own lights has never sat well with me. Also obviously, sometimes I recognize that something is wrong and do it anyway, or I don't apply much forethought at all (in moments of high emotion or compromised sobriety, say).

But most, less robotic people say "I'm sorry" now and again. And my thinking is that, in order to feel genuine regret for your actions, one or the other of these has to be true:

  1. Your own system of "right" and "wrong" varies from moment to moment or day to day. Yesterday, what you did didn't feel wrong, but today it does.
  2. Your system of right and wrong doesn't vary much, but you semi-frequently ignore your own morals; in other words, you knew what you did yesterday was wrong when you did it, but you did it anyway.

So what I'm wondering is, which is more true for most people? If you, reader, are given to occasional apologies, which feels more true for you?

26 comments:

  1. Actually, now I think of it, I regard apologizing the way you do. I stand by my opinions so I don't feel the need to apologize for them (I might not state them though if I feel someone will get upset, but then I also tend to avoid encounters with such people in the future).
    People call me stubborn because sometimes when proven wrong (that happens really rarely but standing by my opinion seems to cause people to think I'm stubborn), I have a problem admitting that I've been wrong. But, it's not from stubborness, it's pride (which is my big fault). If you attack with words and make fun/or something similar because I've been wrong, of course I will have a hard time admitting. That's why I never do that to other people when they are proven wrong, so no one else's ego needs to feel attacked. And then it turns out, all of them aren't stubborn, but I am.

    I think I digressed a lot from your question. Sorry. :)

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  2. 3. I genuinely feel regret when I've hurt someone (on purpose or not) and so the apology is not always an admission of guilt... but a way to work on my empathy project. sometimes I should or shouldn't do or have done something because of he way it will affect/has affected those I love... I'm not always in the know about these times. when I become in the know--my sorry is an "I wish I had realized that, I will try to remember that about you/us." I believe in apologies because of what they mean to others... not always because of what they mean to me.

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  3. I apologize on occasion. Usually because I am human with a well tuned bitchy side. I apologize when it rears up with more force than necessary and I mean it when I both rear up and apologize. Like lying it is one of the things that grease the wheels of civilization. Also when I was very young I learned the hard way as they used to say in the olden days that when someone apologizes to me it is wise to accept the apology because the person apologizing may just might be bending themselves to my feel they just might be doing something that you Elisa claim...never mind. I guess you have to learn it yourself.

    Rebecca

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  4. Ines, not a big digression at all! I also have pride issues, or maybe it's just that when I realize I have been genuinely wrong, I'm really dismayed and disappointed with myself and need a minute to deal with it internally.

    Kirsten, well, you've made me look like a real asshole. Just kidding! I see what you are saying, and I do feel genuine regret when I've hurt someone unintentionally, though it's always so hard in those situation not to say "I'm sorry that you feel hurt" which is not what they want to hear nor a real admission of responsibility. Additionally, at other times I do not feel genuine regret, because I believe that some people just cannot be pleased and take everything personally and it has nothing to do with me. I have apologized to people like that and actually regretted it, because it changed nothing except for shifting the power balance in their favor. (Yep, I'm an asshole.)

    Rebecca, accepting apologies is a tricky thing. I don't think I have ever refused an apology per se, but hearing an apology doesn't instantly make me stop being mad/hurt, i.e., I usually have to figure out how to forgive someone on my own, apologies aside, though they probably do grease the wheel.

    And I should say, I didn't intend to come off as superior to people who apologize. I rather admire it (so long as it's not a tic) -- I just don't fully understand it. I want to get better at it.

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  5. P.S. to Kirsten: What I hate the most is when I unintentionally hurt someone, but don't find out about it until weeks or months later from a third party -- and then am expected to produce a blanket apology. I think unintentional crossings are best dealt with immediately (or, you know, the next day if people are drunk).

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  6. I can think of two instances when I need to apologize and do- 1.) When I said I would get to something and the due date (time, week, day, whatever) comes up and I haven't finished or even started it. This is because I have trouble saying no to requests for activities and opportunities that eat up my free time (and sometimes even my time at my desk at my day job- I'm always being asked and accepting "side work" from co-workers because I'm better at appearing to have everything well managed and under control, I guess). I usually try to be proactive in my apologizing- if I know I won't complete the task, I try to give as much notice as possible so no one is left wondering.

    2.) The only person who really bears the brunt of my emotional stress is my boyfriend. I can get really worked up about something (typically as a result of feeling overwhelmed, not because I'm angry or sad) and it turns me into a stone-silent bitch. M takes a hug as an apology. I never keep him waiting very long and we don't ever go to bed angry.

    I don't take apologies very well, either. I'm constantly questioning other peoples' sincerity, and if they're a repeat offender, their apologies mean jack-shit to me. I'd rather just not be trespassed against so I don't have to worry about forgiving my trespassers. :)

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  7. Hugs make good apologies (which sounds like a hipster album title). Never going to bed angry is a good policy but John and I don't adhere to it very well. We're good about making up quickly in the morning though. (I am familiar with stone-silent bitch mode.)

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  8. I may be intruding on a female klatch, but this is a thought-provoking post, and I wanted to say that some things about people will never go away, no matter how much we want them to. One is that we're obliged to follow the Golden Rule; another is that we're naturally egocentric and therefore prone to breaking the Golden Rule. When I realize that I've treated someone in a way I wouldn't want to be treated, I SHOULD feel guilty about failing to respect her and empathize with her, and I SHOULD need to expiate my guilt by apologizing and promising to change my behavior. (And if I don't have those feelings, I should feel guilty that and fear that I'm bad.)

    And if we're on the receiving end of an apology, we're nonetheless obliged to follow the Golden Rule. Unless we're sure the penitent is merely feigning contrition, we should empathize with her need to resolve her guilt--to be "let off the hook"--and allow her to make amends. If we act unimpressed with her apology, we leave her hanging on the hook. That's cynical and vindictive.

    I'm talking more to myself than to anyone else. I'm sure I'm a bigger asshole than anyone reading this.

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  9. I don't think it's a matter of a shifting moral compass. Apologizing has more to do with realizing how one affects others, and understanding that people are different, and it has to do with having empathy for someone because you care about him or her, even though they function differently. I think the ability to apologize is very important. It's not a matter of right vs. wrong (and people who have a hard time apologizing never seem to understand this -- being "right" is the most important thing, more important than the other person's feelings). When I apologize, I don't always think I've done something wrong, but if I see my behavior has hurt another, I feel badly, and apologize as a way to try to help the other person feel better. It seems so basic to me. I don't understand people who don't and can't and have a hard time apologizing. I honestly don't get it. From the point of view of someone who values apologies, it appears very cold.

    Elisa, you talked about someone apologizing to you when you're still angry. What about when you feel hurt? Do you have a hard time accepting an apology then? Aren't you relieved when they apologize?

    "Moral compass," right and wrong, all of that, I don't know. People are fallible. It just doesn't seem so black and white to me.

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  10. (2) is pretty often true for me; I'm fairly used to doing the wrong thing in cases where doing the right thing would be too much work.

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  11. Elisa-- did not mean to come off as superior either. I have however lived and loved long term people who are very very different from me. That's all... I just wanted to point out a third way of seeing the apology. And as far as accepting apologies.. I am always damned grateful of that consideration (I used to get angry when my mom apologized but didn't seem to change behavior, but then I realized over time that she was... but incrementally). I try to get better, and when I fail... I try to forgive myself and allow myself to get better more slowly. And then I try to turn around and give other people that time (let's be frank, my husband--but also a decades-long best friend, a sister, my mother, my boys, etc.) I think once I decided that these people were worth having around for my eternity... I started having more patience with both them and myself. Also--I NEED my boys to be the kind of men who can say they are sorry. so I NEED to model that--its a non-negotiable. good night! kiki

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  12. I try not to do things that I'll feel the need to apologize for, though I do from time to time say things when I'm angry, or just carelessly or unthinking, that hurt people's feelings, and it seems right to apologize for such things.

    If I find I'm doing something repeatedly that's hurting someone, or if it's something basic in a relationship (rather than a random thoughtless remark or something), then just apologizing doesn't feel like enough, then I need to work on it at some more basic level, figure out what's wrong, what I need to do differently, and so on.

    I like what some of the "12-step" recovery groups talk about, regarding the distinction between apologizing and making amends. To amend is to change. (Actual change, not just promising to.) "You amend the constitution, you don't apologize to it," as I heard someone put it once.

    I'm remembering also that in (I think) Greek an "apologia" originally meant a defense.

    I like Annandale Dream Gazette's comment above -- it says quite a bit of how I feel about the general question of apologizing.

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  13. Annandale: I don't see a distinction between being angry and being hurt. And I don't see why my viewpoint is any more black and white than yours -- can you explain why you think it is?

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  14. Kirsten, I think that I am patient, and that I think in the long-term, when it comes to relationships -- I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. I may have painted myself as an unforgiving person, but I don't believe I am.

    Lyle: "I try not to do things that I'll feel the need to apologize for, though I do from time to time say things when I'm angry, or just carelessly or unthinking, that hurt people's feelings, and it seems right to apologize for such things." This is how I feel. I try not to do things I'll feel sorry for; it seems weird that this effort isn't as rewarded as being prone to apologies. I guess apologies are the universal donor whereas behavior is type dependent.

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  15. Hmmm....I don't think it's because I have one system that I've created and then later I have another system. I don't think it's because I know what my system is and I ignore it. I think it's because I don't have a system or if I do I'm not very aware of it. I'm one of those people who other people take by the shoulders and shake. "What were you thinking?" [Brain crickets.] I wasn't. I know kids say this all the time but that's because they mean it. Many times I move through the world and people like a dog would. I just thrust my head forward and go--let the images flash. If I do think, I can't decide--before or after. I just CANNOT make up my mind. Other than, should I kill this person? Though, come to think of it, at times, maybe not even that. I'm an Extreme Grey. Many times I have this feeling that everything I do is random. It feels like I'll end up at the same place no matter what decision I make, even though intellectually I know that's not true.

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  16. I'm sorry. I'll have to read your blog more now that you've updated the graphics.

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  17. Elisa -- What I mean by "black and white" is a kind of uncertainty, in that most times, to me, it doesn't seems so certain what is right and wrong, when it comes to two basically good people who both have functional moral compasses but just see things differently. Also, what you describe as moments of "high emotion or compromised sobriety" --- those kinds of factors ---vary hugely from person to person, so that people aren't always in perfect control or completely aware of what they're doing at any given time. Things like stress, or mood disorder, or even something as simple as not getting enough sleep, have a big impact on how people behave. To someone who doesn’t like apologies, those factors may seem like excuses to not take responsibility for one’s behavior, but I think they’re just facts of life.

    I see your point in that I think there are apologies that people make that don’t come out of any kind of real regret but rather just out of trying to appease their guilt; but then there are genuine apologies where someone feels badly for what they’ve done, that they may have chosen to do differently had they been 100% in control. I don’t believe, really, that anyone is 100% in control or even 90% in control most of the time. Also, to me, a person’s intent is very important. If someone did something that inadvertently hurt me out of some basic nonmalicious obliviousness, I am grateful to receive an apology. If that’s not the case and something was said or done specifically to hurt me, apology really isn’t even on the table.

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  18. What's the difference between an apology intended to appease guilt and an apology prompted by real regret? Guilt is regret--a kind of regret, rather.

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  19. The difference is intent. One is intended to ease the discomfort of the person apologizing: the other to ease the person the pain of the person who is being apologized to.

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  20. Okay, I guess you're distinguishing between genuine and fake apologies. If my apology is merely a balm for my own pain, then I remain sheathed in the self-regard that made it possible for me to hurt the other person, and I haven't really redeemed myself. Yes, that's true.

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  21. Liz: "Many times I have this feeling that everything I do is random." That's probably closer to the truth than most people can admit to themselves!

    J: Yes, you like? I was bored of the old layout.

    ADG: I can see that, but I guess I think that "If someone gets hurt, you're supposed to apologize" and "People who aren't good at apologies are cold" are kind of black and white views of the world as well. It's not that I am unfeeling and oblivious to other people, it's more that I think actions are more valuable than words. If I learned that I unintentionally hurt someone, I'd try not to do the same thing again, but I wouldn't necessarily feel any real kind of regret, because I can't say that I would act differently given the chance to go back (I didn't know what the outcome would be) -- but I can try to act differently now that I have more information.

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  22. By the way, when I think of things I've done in the past that I regret and feel sorry for, #1 is more true for me -- at the time, I didn't think they were wrong, but now I do.

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  23. I didn't think, say, or mean that people who aren't good at apologies are cold. I said from the point of view of someone who values apologies, it appears cold.

    I've had this same discussion with a close friend who doesn't like to apologize, and who is kind of oblivious (and admits it) so maybe I'm not being clear, in my reactions, because of that. But I do not view my unable-to-apologize friend as cold at all. That behavior seems cold, but the way I stated it, I thought, clarified that I'm not sure if it's just my point of view.

    Listen, basically I think you're probably much more confident about your opinions. That's a good thing. I'll shut up now. This is an argument that I've had too often, and have too much invested in, and one that I never win, whether I have it with a close friend or a stranger, apparently. But I don't even know you, so please, no hard feelings.

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  24. Let's not think of it as an argument then -- I don't want to "win" anything, I was just genuinely curious about the mindset of someone like you, who values apologies, and you, Kirsten and others shed some light on that mindset. It makes sense to me. I don't think it will change how I operate, but I can see how it works. (From the point of view of society, I think your view "wins" -- apologies are part of how society works.)

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  25. I like this:

    "Let's not think of it as an argument then -- I don't want to "win" anything, I was just genuinely curious about the mindset of someone like you, who values apologies, and you, Kirsten and others shed some light on that mindset. It makes sense to me."

    The above, for me, suggests why the blog-comment streams here can be heated but not actually agressive/condescending--yay for dialectical!

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