The parts of a good apology

A good apology has several parts. Not every apology has all of them, and they might not be in this order. Aaron Lazare, author of On Apology, divides apologies into four parts. These are acknowledgement of the offense; explanation; “various attitudes and behaviors including remorse, shame, humility, and sincerity”; and reparations.

We agree, with a little elaboration. Here’s a simple checklist of our version.

First, the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” If the other important parts of an apology are there, it can still be a good apology without these words. But the rest of it has to be really good, so we suggest playing it safe and including those words.

Print: Kuniyoshi Utagawa. Public domain.

You should take “Fishface” as a compliment. I know I would.

Second, what you are sorry for. Say what you did, or what you said. Be specific. Not “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings” but “I’m sorry I called you Fishface after you asked me to stop.” It may feel painful to name what you did, but if you leave it out, it leaves open the possibility that you have mental reservations.

Third, acknowledgement of the effect. “I left you stranded. I should have realized that if I took your crutches for my dance number, you had no way to get back to the car.” Don’t go out on a limb here and act like a mind reader: “I realize this is part of a pattern of behavior on the part of red-headed people that makes you feel vulnerable.” Again, it’s no fun to describe this, but it’s how you show you understand the impact.

Fourth, explanation. Sometimes this is needed, and sometimes it’s not. If it’s mysterious to the injured party why you did what you did, you need to explain. “I thought you were putting alligators in my soup, and I lost my temper.” Explaining is not a time to defend yourself, because when you apologize, the focus should not be on you. “I was a sickly kid, and I had no way of stopping bullies from putting alligators in my soup, and when I complained to the grownups they just laughed, and told me to toughen up. I would hide under the stairs and cry…. So anyway, sorry I broke your tooth.” No.

Photo: Unknown. Public domain.

To this day I won’t eat a thick soup. You know, an opaque soup? Where there could be something lurking in it?

Fifth, why it won’t happen again. Often it’s not necessary to say more than “I won’t do it again.” Other times you need to elaborate. “To make sure I never again fiddle absentmindedly with my flamethrower while driving, I have made a new policy to keep it in the trunk, and I have purchased a trunk rack to keep it in.”

Sixth, what you will do to make it up to them. Often this isn’t necessary, because the apology itself is the reparation. Other times, that’s not enough. “I called the DeLorean repair people and told them to send the bills to me.”

That’s all. You can do that.

Illustration: Illegible. Public domain.

I shouldn’t have borrowed the Delorean without asking, I shouldn’t have taken it out of the country, and I definitely shouldn’t have let the monkey drive.


This entry was posted in Good apologies, The Mechanics of Apology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to The parts of a good apology

  1. mim says:

    this is the best blog post ever. The captions on the illustrations = genius.

  2. smc says:

    Nice. Clear. What could be easier?

  3. snarly says:

    sumac is a captioning genius. also she needs to apologize to me for that baby alligator postcard giving me the hella heebie-jeebies.

  4. roberta says:

    I’m sorry I laughed. Oh wait…

  5. David Gans says:

    A truly great post, and the illustrations and captions are great!

  6. Frances says:

    Excellent description. Often people think that saying “Sorry” is the important part; but as you show it is really just a maker that what *follows* will be an apology. And I agree that the specificity is really important. You have to show that you understand what you did and why it was wrong. (And I also agree that the illustrations and captions are genius. 🙂

  7. peter418 says:

    It might be good to add this: when you reach the explanation step’ resist the urge to somehow lessen your responsibility. Own it completely and especially avoid any hint of blame.

  8. artlife says:

    should be taught in school as well as home

  9. Susan/ohbejoyful says:

    *Never* let the monkey drive!!!

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  23. Michael says:

    An excellent guide, ndeed. But having been bullied, laughed at by grownups, and told to “toughen up” (or “not be so sensitive”), I might have withheld regrets for a judiciously broken tooth – if I’d been brave enough to come out from under the stairs.

    This wasn’t the best metaphor to use for this lesson, in my humble opinion.

    • sumac says:

      I think it’s different if it’s the bullied kid who’s broken someone’s tooth, or the grownup who remembers being a bullied kid….

      However, we are open to new metaphors!

  24. Michael says:

    I misspelled “indeed”. My apologies.

  25. Michael says:

    Thank you for making the distinction: one with which I completely agree. Acting out in adulthood merits a clean and complete apology. Have a lovely day 🙂

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