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How To Apologise Without Looking Like A Tool

Last week, ex-Miss Universe Malaysia Samantha Katie James drew widespread flack for her tone-deaf remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement, only to enrage people further with a “sorry not sorry” post explaining her thought process. Meanwhile, Glee actress Lea Michele angered former Hollywood colleagues and the internet alike when ex-costar Samantha Ware exposed her racist comments. And how did she respond? By apologising for the way that her actions were “perceived” (her word choice, not ours), rather than apologising for the actions themselves.

All of us have been subjected to a non-apology apology. And if we’re honest, we’ve probably delivered a few of them ourselves. Saying “I’m sorry” without attaching an explanation, without shifting the blame, and without fishing for forgiveness is a life skill. Or at the very least, it’s something you might need to do after being stuck at home with the same people over the past two months.

Here are some things to take note of before you blunder your way into another “I’m sorry you feel that way”-style apology:


Evaluate your intent

Why are you apologising? Is it because you want forgiveness? While it’s normal to want absolution, an apology is for the other person, not you, meaning that you shouldn’t expect anything in return. Say you’re sorry and let them do what they want with that. If they need time to work through their feelings before forgiving you, give them that. If they decide to stay mad at you forever, accept it as a consequence of your actions.  

If an apology isn’t for earning forgiveness, then what is it for?

Lots of apologies carry an expectation that things will bounce back to normal once you say that you’re sorry. But they probably won’t, at least not right away. If you spilled water on your friend’s laptop, and apologised, they’d still need time to arrange for repairs. And sometimes it takes longer to fix a friendship than it does to fix equipment.

Ultimately, the purpose of an apology is to validate the injured party’s feelings. By apologising, you’re acknowledging the depth of your wrongdoing and letting the other person know that they have a right to feel hurt. They’re not crazy for being offended. They’re not weak for being in pain. It’s not their fault that they were working at the dining table, where you just so happened to be drinking a glass of water. It’s your fault for sitting so close to them without paying attention to where you were putting your glass.


So how do you apologise? First up, here's what NOT to say:

DON’T SAY: “I honestly don’t remember doing that, but I’m sorry.”

We get it – you don’t want to admit culpability for something you might not even realise that you did, but if you care about the relationship or care about doing right by the other person, then it’s worth it to just straight-up say that you’re sorry. Doing so will show that you care more about the other person’s wellbeing than being right. 

DON’T SAY: “I’m sorry for how my actions were perceived.”/“I’m sorry you feel that way.”

If you hit someone while running a red light, would you apologise to them for their pain? No. You would – or well, you should – apologise for hitting them in the first place. By not apologising for your actions, you’re faulting them for feeling hurt, without taking ownership of how you inflicted the injury. “I’m sorry for hurting you” might sound slightly more noble, but it still doesn’t acknowledge what you specifically did to hurt the other person.

DON’T SAY: “That was not my intent.”

It wasn’t your intent to hit someone with your car, or to make them the punchline of a racist joke, but that doesn’t remove the injury. Either way, you owe them an apology.

DON’T: Explain what you were trying to do or why you did it

For example, “I was heartbroken a lot, so I guess I took that out on you by cheating.” Or “….but you also” and “….but you said”.  Again, evaluate your intent. An apology isn’t for you, it’s for the other person, so don’t use it as an opportunity to defend or explain yourself. Just admit that you were wrong, and say that whatever led to the moment of your wrongdoing is no excuse for how you acted.

DON’T: Do something nice for the person instead of apologising

Case study: Brian cheats on Jennifer with her best friend. Jennifer finds out and blows a gasket. Brian buys Jennifer a diamond ring and a Lamborghini to make it up to her. Does he get a free pass?

Being extra nice to the person we wronged doesn’t compensate, let alone erase, what we did. You can’t buy back forgiveness with extravagant gestures or gifts. Just say you’re sorry.

DON’T: Deflect

Don’t end your apology by announcing that you’re pregnant, that you just got retrenched, or that you’re just going through a lot right now, as any attempt to couch an apology with personal news will just make it look like you’re fishing for sympathy. 


Okay, so how should I apologise?

It a nutshell, you need to not only take responsibility, but you need to show that you understand the breadth of the injury that you inflicted. And then you need to follow up your apology with an action plan detailing how you plan to change. There are four basic steps to doing this, which we gleaned from life experience, as well as Wikihow (because we’re that bad at apologizing):  

First, describe what you did wrong using “I” statements:

“At lunch yesterday, I made a joke about your race. Everyone laughed, but you didn’t say anything, and I realize now that what I said was really distateful. I'm so sorry.”
Not: “Sorry ah I didn’t mean anything by the comment yesterday. It was meant as a joke. Didn’t mean to offend.”

“Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been talking to my ex-boyfriend behind your back. And I decided to meet him for dinner when he asked me out. I really regret doing that.”
Not: “Last week, my ex DM’d me on Instagram so I replied him to be nice cuz I thought he just wanted to be friends again, but yeah lah we ended up talking for awhile. Sorry, he very poor thing so I didn’t know how to reject him.”

“I need to apologise because yesterday, you showed me your favourite movie and I mocked it the whole time.”
Not: “Sorry I didn’t like the movie you showed me, it’s just not my taste, but it’s not a big deal what, it’s just a movie.”

Second, show that you understand the consequences of your actions.

“My comment made you feel awkward and reinforced some stereotypes people already had in their minds.”

“When you found out that I was texting my ex all day, you felt insecure and betrayed. I really disrespected and hurt you, and now you no longer trust me.”

“When I make fun of something you really love, it makes you feel as if I’m making fun of you.”

Third, take responsibility.

“I took your silence as consent and kept on laughing with the rest. I know that racist jokes perpetuate discrimination, so I am sorry for ignoring that.”  

“I didn’t maintain appropriate boundaries between me and him. I knew that what I was doing would hurt you, which is why I hid it from you, and there’s no excuse for that.”

“You’ve always been interested in the things that I love, and I should have reciprocated by being more interested in the things that matter to you.”  

Fourth, show that you have an action plan.

“Moving forward, I’ll do better and unlearn my racist behavior by reading books by minority voices and by educating those around me, rather than just going along with what society accepts as ‘funny.’”

“I’ve told my ex that I wish him well, but that I would rather we not talk like that anymore since I’m in a relationship. It doesn’t matter whether or not he just wants to be friends. What matters to me is that you feel safe in this relationship and that we can trust each other. So I’ve deleted his number and we’ve stopped following each other on Instagram.”

“I really want to make it up to you. And I really care about you, so the things that you love matter to me too. You’ve been trying to make me watch the John Wick movies for the longest time. Can we watch one together tonight?”

Will they forgive you? Maybe not. They might not even accept your apology. But at the very least, by stating what you did wrong and leaving it at that, you're not piling on additional pressure for them to absolve you. 

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