When I was being forced to apologise as a kid, I thought it was hilarious to sweetly sing the refrain of Chicago’s cheesy Eighties ballad, It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry, grouchily adding the rogue lyrics: “… when I’m not” and scarpering. Being able to say you’re sorry is a valuable skill, not just in personal relations, but in politics, commerce and international affairs, and a well-worded apology can have enormous benefits – so why do some people find it so difficult?
A fantastic letter of apology written by an 11-year-old boy in America has recently gone viral due to its downright sweetness and emotional intelligence. After his parents discovered that he’d phoned 911 and shouted something daft down the line, they forced him to write the note, marched him down to the cop shop and made him read it to the baffled police officers. It went like this:
“Dear emergency dispatcher, I am writing a apology letter for what I did last night. Last night I called and said ‘deez nuts’. I know this was stupid but I was not listening to myself but I knew it was wrong. Please forgive me for what I said. I know there will be consequences for my actions and I will not complain about them.
“Again please if you can forgive me if you can. What happened was that me and my friends were talking and I got dared to call you. I would get nothing out of it and only get in trouble for it. In the end I got in trouble for it and this is a letter for you. I am sorry for what I did and hope that you can forgive me.”
The somewhat baffled police officers gave the lad a tour of the station and the whole affair ended up as a positive experience for everyone involved, especially those of us reading about it. Observing contrition gives us warm feelings, it seems.
In stark contrast, automatic offence machine Katie Hopkins was recently forced to tweet: “I was confused about identity. I got it wrong” after wrongly tweeting, more than a fortnight ago, that cook and campaigner Jack Monroe had vandalised war memorials. So far there’s been no whiff of an actual apology, though.
And then we have Thomas Cook, which last week finally apologised to the family of Bobby and Christi Shepherd, the two children who died of carbon monoxide poisoning during a holiday in Corfu in 2006 – NINE years ago. Understandably, their mother, Sharon Wood, dismissed the apology as “too little, too late”.
Clearly, it’s not as easy for a corporation to say it’s sorry as it is for an individual, largely because those simple words can be interpreted as an admission of culpability, leading to costly legal action.
The same goes for national leaders scrambling to find words to make up for wartime atrocities committed by their predecessors; how do you show explicit remorse for what happened in a way that protects you from having to spend a fortune on reparations?
The study of apologies has kept psychologists busy for years. Those who specialise in mending and building relationships say it’s important to ask yourself what the aim of your apology is: is it to ease the pain of the person who has been wronged or the need to make yourself feel less guilty? Either way, in order for an apology to be effective, you need to focus on the other person’s feelings, not your own. And that can be difficult.
Guy Winch PhD, author of self-help book Emotional First Aid – Healing, Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts, is an expert on why some people don’t apologise. The first reason, he says, is that they struggle to separate an action from a character, so if they admit to having done a bad thing that means they must be a bad person. This might explain why some politicians find it so difficult to apologise. (Nick Clegg’s apology video after the Lib Dems, while in coalition with the Tories, reneged on promises made about tuition fees was famously mocked in song, which may not have been what his advisors had hoped for, but you have to applaud his intent.)
The second reason, which ties in with the corporate reluctance to apologise, is the fear that you might be assuming full responsibility for whatever it was that went wrong, and that in apologising you could be removing all culpability from the other person. The third explanation, Winch says, is that not apologising is an easy way of managing your emotions. In other words, it’s a form of denial – if you don’t admit you were in the wrong, you can keep the reasons for your dodgy behaviour locked away and won’t be forced to confront the issues behind them. An example might be a person who can’t apologise for shouting at a colleague for no good reason.
While many of us revel in catharsis after telling someone we’re sorry, another study has shown that some people feel much, much better if they don’t apologise. The research paper by Tyler G Okimoto, Michael Wenzel and Kyli Hendrick, snappily entitled “Refusing to Apologise Can Have Psychological Benefits (And We Issue No Mea Culpa For the Research Finding)”, found that not saying you’re sorry can be empowering. It boils down to the fact that a lot of people feel they have a greater sense of integrity if they don’t say they’re sorry.
Stubbornly refusing to apologise when it’s obvious you’re in the wrong simply exacerbates everyone’s ill will, though. And worse, issuing one of those hideous non-apologies – “I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt” or “I’m sorry that you took offence” only compounds matters.
A clear apology can nip the bad feelings in the bud and help everyone move on, and, according to marketing experts, actually make a commercial relationship or reputation stronger than it was before the original mistake or offence was committed. If you need help, check out perfectapology.com, which explores the art and science of apologies, and helps people who really do find it hard to say they’re sorry. (Even if they’re not.)