#SorryNotSorry: Rejecting the Modern-Day Non-Apology
Many of us have been taught to believe it's right to apologize when we have made a mistake or hurt someone we care about. Most religious or spiritual traditions highly esteem seeking absolution from those one has wronged, and forgiving one's offender. This sociocultural pressure to apologize often leads to offering a fake apology meant to "smooth things over" but failing to rectify the situation. Saying sorry for the sake of saving face misses the mark of what it means to enjoy true and lasting reconciliation and greater peace of mind.
Have you ever wondered why you felt angry after receiving an apology instead of grateful for a chance to be reconciled with someone who hurt or offended you? Conversely, maybe you've given an apology only to find it brutally rebuffed, and you wondered why. The answer is actually fairly complex, but it is succinctly summed up in this trending hashtag, #sorrynotsorry.
Perhaps more insulting than the original offense is receiving a fake -- faux -- apology, or non-apology. A fauxpology expresses sympathy for the situation without accepting responsibility for it, justifying itself based on circumstances or intent. A misunderstanding of what it means to apologize and seek forgiveness has led to a perpetuation of the myth that apologizing even when one is not sorry, but compelled to for some reason still qualifies as a character virtue. The human brain is remarkably adept at self-deception, but the fauxpology is rooted in a flimsy understanding of reconciliation and the important role of repentance and making amends, which is the second part to a full and complete apology.
Relatively, there is a significant body of research showing that people who value apologizing for the sake of "saying sorry" are more likely to underestimate their own response to an offense in a similar emotional situation. In a research study entitled How Important Is an Apology to You? Forecasting Errors in Evaluating the Value of Apologies, psychologists David De Cremer, Madan M. Pillutla, and Chris Reinders Folmer referred to a solid body of well-known psychological research showing:
"...that individuals are quite limited in predicting the level of distress they will experience following emotional events (Gilbert, Pinel, Wilson, Blumberg, & Wheatley, 1998; for reviews, see Wilson & Gilbert, 2003, 2005). In fact, such studies have revealed that participants consistently overestimate their future emotional reactions to both positive and negative events (Gilbert et al., 1998; Wilson, Wheatley, Meyers, Gilbert, & Axsom, 2000). Literature on behavioral forecasting shows that people over-estimate their tendency to engage in socially desirable behaviors, such as being generous or cooperative (Epley & Dunning, 2000; Sherman, 1980), and they underestimate their tendency toward deviant and cruel behaviors, such as administering electric shocks (Milgram, 1974)."
The Etymology of an Apology
Understanding the roots of the word "apology" is imperative to clarifying the nature of the endeavor. The word "apology" descends from the Greek "apologia," meaning "to acknowledge one's offense or failure; express regret; give a justification for one's position or actions."
The Difference between Guilt & Shame
Is it Guilt or Shame? The language a person uses when apologizing offers valuable insight into his or her motives and sincerity.
In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown elaborates how each emotion manifests itself in the delivery of an apology: "The majority of shame researchers and clinicians agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between 'I am bad' [shame] and 'I did something bad' [guilt]...When we feel shame, we are most likely to protect ourselves by blaming something or someone, rationalizing our lapse, offering a disingenuous apology, or hiding out.... When we apologize for something we've done, make amends, or change a behavior that doesn't align with our values, guilt -- not shame -- is most often the driving force. We feel guilty when we hold up something we've done or failed to do against our values and find they don't match up" (Brown, 71-72).
Each of us has felt the pride-crushing blow of admitting we are wrong, and we can probably all agree that apologizing undoubtedly takes a fair degree of humility and courage. So, why are some apologies rejected? The answer isn't as cut-and-dried as one might expect. The words "apology" and "amends," although literally synonymous with each other in a thesaurus, encompass two entirely different elements of a complete apology.
Many of us assume that when someone offers us an apology, what they will also offer us is restitution. That is, we expect that if our offender is truly sorry, they will take whatever measures necessary to right the wrong they're apologizing for. Perhaps what many of us expect when we are on the receiving end of an apology isn't an apology, but amends.
"If one makes a mistake, then an apology is usually sufficient to get things back on an even keel. However -- and this is a big 'however' -- most people do not ever know why their apology did not seem to have any effect. It is simply that they did not make a mistake; they made a choice...and never understood the difference between the two." -- Andy Andrews --
The Power of Choice & Responsibility: Are the words "I had no choice" really a fair assertion?
Best-selling author and inspirational speaker Andy Andrews' quote (above) proposes that the difference is the perception of the offense. The offender may consider his or her actions to be a simple mistake, denying responsibility for what is perceived by the other as a choice. Many individuals, when offering an "apology," will contend that they "had no choice but to [commit whatever action led to the offense]". In other words, what is really happening is that the offender is denying his or her ability to make constructive choices that also include genuine consideration for the person he or she is apologizing to.
The Liberating Power of Choice
"...everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."— Viktor E. Frankl
In Man's Search for Meaning, psychologist and concentration camp survivor, Viktor Frankl, introduces the reader to the "Capos," individuals who had been chosen by the SS men to help keep the camp and their fellow prisoners "in line" for the Nazis: "Often, they were harder on the prisoners then were the guards, and beat them more cruelly than the SS men did" (Frankl, 4).
As a clinician, Frankl was fascinated by the phenomenon which turned ordinary co-captives into vicious co-abusers and deduced that a person's will is motivated by one's sense of purpose, a deeply personal and intrinsic choice made long before the opportunity to consciously decide one way or another was presented. Frankl points out that even in a concentration camp, one always has a choice between courses of action: "Here lies that chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him" (Frankl, 67).
Frankl writes of the prisoners who deeply understood the power of choice even in the bleakest of situations: " Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances? We can answer [this and other questions] from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress" (Frankl, 65).
In his acclaimed Being and Nothingness, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre provides a thought-provoking analogy of how shame manifests in the conscience, elaborating that shame is an emotion we feel after an action (or inaction) has been committed, and we hear the footsteps of Consequence approach: "When I peep through the keyhole, I am completely absorbed in what I am doing and my ego does not feature as part of this pre-reflective state. However, when I hear a floorboard creaking behind me, I become aware of myself as an object of the other's look. My ego appears on the scene of this reflective consciousness, but it is as an object for the other."
What Sartre is saying is that our decisions arise from subconscious feelings, values and morals that we "pre-reflectively" make, meaning that these decisions are actually not made at the time we believe we are making them, but far in advance.
Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.— Jean-Paul Sartre
Modern Neuroscience Confirms Sartre's Philosophy
Of course, science has continued to advance and now affords us a glimpse at new parallels between the fields of philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology. In The Brain: The Story of You, neuroscientist David Eagleman writes, "There is never a time zero when you decide to do something because every neuron in the brain is driven by other neurons...Your decision to turn right -- or left -- is a decision that reaches back in time: seconds, minutes, days, a lifetime. Even when decisions seem spontaneous, they don't exist in isolation" (Eagleman, 94).
To illustrate this point, Eagleman notes a Harvard study, led by Professor Alvaro Pascual-Leone, in which participants were sat in front of a computer whose screen would turn from red to yellow to green in a certain space of time. During the time the screen was red, the participants were to choose which hand to move, but not move it. When the light turned green, the participants would lift whichever hand they had previously selected to lift when the computer screen was red. After establishing this baseline for the experiment, they introduced a twist, using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation to stimulate the brain's motor cortex, discharging an electrical pulse during the time the computer screen flashed yellow. (Eagleman notes that in the control, the participants received only the sound of the pulse.)
The stimulation caused participants to favor choosing one hand over the other, even if they had chosen the other hand during the time the computer screen was red: "Although the TMS was initiating the movement in their hand, many of the participants felt as if they had made the decision of their own free will. Pascual-Leone reports that participants often said that they had meant to switch their choice. Whatever the activity in the brain was up to, they took credit for it as though it were freely chosen. The conscious mind excels at telling itself the narrative of being in control" (Eagleman, 95).
What are you apologizing for?
"So when you roll up to the fork in the road carrying your lifetime's history with you, who exactly is responsible for the decision? [This consideration leads] to the deep question of free will. If we rewound history one hundred times, would you always do the same thing?" -- David Eagleman, Author and Neuroscientist --
What our society needs is a whole new approach to non-apologies, and not the kind non-apologies we've been discussing so far. Even though she makes no mention of him, Megan Orcholski's TedX speech on her modern-day No Apology Living credo corresponds with Sartre's philosophy that the greatest human freedom is the freedom of choice. She implores us to stop apologizing for our choices, no matter what they are, and just own them. Authenticity is not necessarily having values. Authenticity is the implementation of our values to the degree that we live a life we don't need to defend. Be clear about your own principles, ethics, and values system, and have the courage of conviction to stand up behind your words and actions; then, there is no need to apologize, or offend anyone with a phony "I'm sorry."
- 7 Characteristics of a Real, Genuine, Sincere Apology
A real apology comes from a humble heart that is truly sorry and repentant. But nothing is worse than a faint apology, a false apology, or a non-apology.
- The Public Apology | Famous Apologies
The public apology: How others have apologized. Best PR secrets on what to include and exclude when saying sorry.
- TIME | Top 10 Apologies
As Kanye West uses his unstoppable Twitter feed to apologize (yet again) to Taylor Swift, TIME examines some other famous mea culpas...
- The Art of the Corporate Apology
When deciding whether or not to apologize...
...which do you consider to be your guiding priority?
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Jill Seminaris