Apologies versus Excuses ~ The Art of Saying I'm Sorry

Apology: an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret.
- Webster's Dictionary

Recently, I was involved in a number of unsettling interactions. A common theme ran across all of them: each would have been quickly and easily avoided had a simple apology been offered, rather than the excuses and accusations that were uttered instead. It occurred to me that perhaps an apology refresher would be appropriate.

"I'm sorry."

For such a short phrase -- merely two words -- it is incredible the difficulty people have in saying it. This inability to offer an apology is tied to another disturbing trend. People have a very difficult time accepting responsibility for their actions. Everything, it seems, is really someone else's fault. The "I am a victim of my circumstances" appeal has been trumpeted across the country. I am sure you will agree with me when I say things have gone too far. It is time we all accepted at least a small modicum of responsibility for our actions, and we can start by saying "I'm sorry."

As a way of analyzing apologies, let's start with the apology imposters.

Fake Apologies

The Boomerang Apology ~ This apology is characterized by twisting words so that the apologizer ends up blaming the apologizee. These apologies sound something like "I am sorry you feel that way." I am not sure where this type of apology originated, but blaming the apologizee only serves to defeat the purpose of why you are apologizing in the first place.

The Apology Excuse ~ This apology is characterized by the apologizer stating a reason to justify the situation. These apologies sound something like "I am sorry, but..." In this scenario, the apologizer uses excuses to justify and rationalize a behavior they knew was wrong when they did it.

The Confusion Excuse ~ This apology is characterized by the apologizer attempting to make the apologizee second guess themselves and the situation. These apologies sound something like "I am sorry, you must have misheard me." With so many of us overloaded with information, we do start to second-guess ourselves, even when we are fairly sure we heard right the first time.

The "Not-It" Excuse ~ This apology is characterized by the apologizer blaming something (or someone) else for the situation. These apologies do not even attempt to use the words "I'm sorry," and sound something like "Well, you know, it is not my fault..." This type of apology is commonly heard when dealing with someone who was supposed to provide goods or services.

True Apologies

In order for an apology to be a true apology it must be sincere and the apologizer must feel at least a small amount of guilt for either the situation or the apologizee's feelings.

The true apology is characterized by a genuine tone of voice, good eye contact and brevity of words. While it may be difficult to define a true apology, we all seem to know one when we hear one. It is too bad we do not hear them more often.

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ I recently ordered light fixtures from a well-known store in the area. After 3 months of delays, they finally arrived. I spoke with the store manager to tell him how unhappy I was with all of the delays. I had hoped for an apology and perhaps a discount. But he was rather rude and told me there was nothing he could do, that it was not his fault that the factory was behind. What should I have done?

A: If the store told you that the fixtures were going to be delivered by a certain date and then did not arrive in time, it is their fault. The manager clearly needs to review his customer service skills. At this point you have two options. You can write a detailed letter to the storeowner and ask for a partial refund. Or, you can make sure that you (and your friends) never shop there again. There is an old marketing adage that states: A satisfied customer tells one or two people, whereas a dissatisfied customer tells, on average, eleven people. One can only hope that this store will work on both their forecasting and customer service skills.

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ I was invited to a wedding and planned to go. But at the last minute my girlfriend and I had a huge fight and broke up. I was so upset, and the thought of showing up to the wedding without a date was too much for me, so I did not go. Now my good friend is so angry he won’t talk to me. I said I was sorry, but he does not seem to hear me. What should I do?

A: The bigger the gaffe, the bigger the apology necessary. Not showing for a good friend’s wedding without so much as a phone call is a huge faux pas. You now need to extend a huge olive branch to your friend. Start by writing a letter. Apologize again and elaborate on how what you did was wrong (not why you did it). End by asking the friend out for lunch, or a drink, to talk. Just remember to keep apologizing, but do not include any excuses! This should do the trick. Good luck.

Q: Dear Mannersmith ~ I have heard that when in business situations, you should never apologize because it can make you appear weak and inexperienced. What is your take on this?

A: Very interesting, I had not heard this before. In business situations when a mistake is made, there are two important things to remember. First, you should take responsibility for the situation. And second, you should take steps to minimize and/or repair any damage done. I find an apology to be the best way of taking responsibility and moving on, but it is feasible to take responsibility without an apology. You will have to evaluate the particulars of the situation to decide what is the best possible course based upon the people with whom you are dealing and the prevalent corporate culture.