Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Two Powerful Words

Lately, I've been noticing how people behave in public spaces as well as at work. My big pet peeve is the lack of manners, especially in public spaces where we all need to be civil to each other. Consideration of other people is something that needs to be taught starting at a very young age -- I believe it's never too young -- and reinforced constantly throughout life. Adults are as guilty as children for a lack of consideration for others. Today, I want to talk about one particular thing that is absolutely crucial in a civil society.

The Apology

I'm sorry are two of the most powerful words in any language. Some people believe that saying them under any circumstance is a sign of weakness. I disagree. Apologizing is actually a sign of strength through the awareness that an individual's behavior and words affect those around him or her, and the individual has a responsibility to express him/herself accordingly. If the individual wants to anger or alienate other people, he can offend them with his behavior and words, and then refuse to apologize. But how does this help the individual in society?

It doesn't. It hurts him or her. Let's take a look at what an apology really is.

An apology has three parts. First, there needs to be an acknowledgement of having behaved or said something that hurt another person in some way. Usually, to get the ball rolling, the hurt person says something like, "What you just said hurt me" or "What you just did offended me." Or, if the hurt person is not terribly articulate, it might come out as "That was hurtful!" or "That was disgusting!" Each person has his or her way of expressing their feelings. If the person who hurt the other isn't too mature or socially experienced, that person may not understand that hurting or offending another person is not socially acceptable. In that case, the person won't be listening and won't care about the other, and will fail in being considerate.

However, let's give him more social awareness. Immediately after hearing that he'd hurt someone through his behavior or words, he needs to acknowledge in some way that he'd hurt the other person. No matter how surprised or skeptical, it's important that this acknowledgement happens. It can be a question: "I don't understand. My behavior hurt you?" Or "I'm surprised. Can you explain how it hurt you?" Or it can be a statement: I understand that my behavior hurt you." It helps immensely to be as specific as possible. For example, "I understand that slapping you across the face hurt you." Or "Oh, saying you look fat in that outfit hurt you."

The second part is saying "I'm sorry."  It's important to actually say these two words out loud. Human beings have yet to develop the ability to read minds or to communicate telepathically. I remember my mother encouraging me to understand what those two words mean and how emotional and tonal inflection can affect their interpretation by the other person.  For example, saying "I'm sorry" while laughing can indicate a lack of sincerity.  Apologizing in a sarcastic tone is more hurtful than helpful.  The apology needs to be genuine and sincere. The person apologizing needs to truly want to apologize and is genuinely sorry for hurting or offending the other person.

There are clueless people in this world who don't comprehend that their actions and speech have consequences.  Or they understand the consequences but refuse responsibility for them. And then there are the sociopaths and narcissists who only care about themselves and can be highly manipulative, using consideration and apologies for their own benefit.  I think each of us has known at least one person in our lives who is like this.

The third part of an apology belongs to the person who was hurt or offended. That person has a choice: accept the apology or reject it.  It's important that this also is spoken out loud: "I accept your apology" or "I don't accept your apology." If the apology has been rejected, the offender has a right to know the reason for the rejection. A lot of people respond to an apology by saying "It's OK" in a dismissive tone or with a shrug.  If the offense was serious enough for the offended to say he was hurt or offended, then it's not OK. This third part is as important as the other two, and an apology is not complete unless it's done.  If her apology isn't accepted, she can be hurt by it.  If his apology isn't accepted and no reason given, that can also be hurtful.

Some people might think, after reading all this, that it seems like a lot of work.  It's not.  It's far easier to apologize than not to apologize because keeping silent only perpetuates the hurt. Someone who never apologizes establishes a reputation that hurts himself in the long run. It's very difficult to live or work with someone who never apologizes, never accepts responsibility for his actions, and has no empathy or consideration for other people.

Another aspect of an apology which doesn't always apply is to make amends or attempt to make amends. The example that leaps to mind comes from the TV show "The Big Bang Theory." In one episode, Sheldon Cooper told an FBI agent doing a background check on Howard Wolowitz that Howard had crashed the Mars Rover. This comment cost Howard a promotion. Sheldon didn't admit right away that he was the one who'd hurt Howard. First, he felt deeply guilty which was reflected in his behavior and night dreams. Then he decided to return to the FBI agent and recant what he'd said, but it was too late.  So he went to Howard and confessed what he had done, apologized, and told Howard how he'd tried to fix it by taking back what he'd said to the FBI agent. The part in italics is Sheldon's attempt to make amends.

For more tips on apologies, check out "The Power of Real Apologies in a Fake-Apology World" and the blog post "Life Advice: How to Apologize."

No one is perfect or infallible. It's helpful to know what to do in social situations. Have you ever not apologized?  Why?  Have you not received an apology when you thought you should?  What has your experience been with apologies?  Please leave your story in the comment section!



Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

My parents were nice people but they never actually spoke the words "I'm sorry." I never learned the power of these words until I was at least 40. Later I met someone who would never accept an apology, and that troubles me a lot. I see people do it to their children--"I'm not going to accept your apology because I don't believe you mean it," or "because you're just going to do it again." So they are teaching their kids not to apologize, and not to try to do better.

Gina said...

It's truly astonishing how many people do not understand the importance of the apology. I would say Trump is among them. It would trouble me deeply also if I witnessed parents discouraging apologizing as you describe. But how to impress upon them that they're not helping their kids?