Okay, but how do I know WHEN to apologize?
I’m writing to you because I like your column, and I wanted to specifically ask a follow-up question to your post about apologizing. How do you know when to apologize, versus how do you know when to stand your ground, or when to walk away (from a relationship, a group, an argument, etc)?
The old Christian answer was, “apologize if you sinned; you’ll know you’ve sinned because we’ll tell you. Don’t apologize if you didn’t sin.” That was no good. That led to things like people apologizing for coming out as gay, or trans, and not choosing a life of celibacy and refusing conversion therapy. Since parents may weep over, or even grieve such a decision (to refuse conversion therapy or to date the people you actually like), people in my old church would say, “your choice caused this harm and emotional pain; apologize and make a different choice!”
I am out of the woods enough to see how that was manipulative. Yet, I still feel confused. It’s hard for me to put together a new way of thinking about harm and apologies.
So much, frustratingly, has to do with social norms. If someone does something that’s considered socially normal, yet causes me physical or emotional pain due to the different way I process my senses and information, I have learned they will never apologize for the pain or harm they caused me. To the extent that, if I ask for an apology, I will be reprimanded for asking for an apology because the person I’m asking “didn’t do anything wrong.” Sometimes I have been told overtly that I’m oversensitive or overreacting.
Yet, at the same time, when I have hurt someone by accident, often by doing something that is unusual or outside of social norms, I feel conflicted whether or not I should apologize. Not all non-normative behavior is harmful. And I cannot always tell if someone was really harmed, or if they simply don’t know how to handle emotions of fear and disgust they feel if someone breaks the norms or an ableist and homophobic society. It is not usually as overt or obvious as the situation where people’s parents feel hurt because their child chooses to date the “wrong’ people, or chooses to not go to conversion therapy, or chooses to pursue a sex affirming procedure.
I have been in conflicts often enough as an adult that I wonder if I am regularly doing truly harmful things to others, inadvertently. I don’t want to!
I have a few close friends and a loving partner. I wonder, though, if the reason I don’t have more friends is that I messed up potentially positive relationships due to not apologizing when I really did harm someone. Or, conversely, because I was too sensitive and wanting an apology from someone who could’ve been a good friend if I had been able to accept certain things they did and let them go.
I don’t want to re-litigate any specific past conflicts, but I would love some advice on how to think about this going forward.
Dear Brave Correspondent,
This is such a good question. This is such a good question! Because, indeed, how do we know when to apologize? When there isn’t an external authority to say “You were bad, now say sorry,” we have to rely on our own values and ethics to make those calls. Values and ethics are in some ways an evolving situation as we grow and learn and consider the ways in which our actions do or don’t match the person we want most to be. And so here in the Valley of Apologies, as I sometimes call the Days of Awe – the ten day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – feels like a perfect time to dial in to how we make this call. When should you apologize?
First: “I did a wrong thing,” is NOT THE SAME AS “I am a bad person,” and we absolutely have got to stop acting like it is. We have to stop saying “I didn’t mean it!” instead of “I’m sorry.” We have to stop acting like apologizing for a mistake or a mis-step or a bald, unmitigated, fuck up is the same as being found guilty in a court of law and sentenced to wear a scarlet letter. Everyone makes mistakes, and all of us have made hurtful mistakes when we thought we were doing the right thing (or, at least, not intended to do a wrong thing). Your example, Brave Correspondent, is such a good one here: neurotypical people are doing things that are causing you pain or anguish. Ouch! Are those things proof that this is a Bad Person? No. Are they a sign that they should apologize and do that thing differently with you in the future? Yes. That’s all.
Saying sorry is a gateway to behavioral change – it’s how we say “I regret having caused you pain/upset/harm and I will do my best not to do that anymore.”
An error is not a referendum on their/your/anyone’s Essential Goodness as a person, but a refusal to apologize when you’ve caused someone pain certainly is.
It is also worth mentioning that with new endeavors, new friendships, new projects, new activist engagements there will ALWAYS be ain increased risk of new mistakes and therefore new opportunities to apologize and that’s fine. One can, and should, find within one’s self a place of acceptance about a new space being a learning space, and in learning we will inevitably fail, learn, apologize, and then fail in different and more interesting ways. Mike Montero’s encouraging slogan “let’s make better mistakes tomorrow!” is very helpful here. Similarly, if you’re a person who regularly manages new employees, new volunteers, or works in any way with beginners or students I would encourage you most strongly to start your engagement with some conversation about this. Set the new people at lease around the idea that the will make mistakes and it will mostly not be the End Times. That way, when the inevitable happens, they will be able to access the same proactive (rather than defensive) feelings you model.
So, when to apologize. Overall, do you feel you did the wrong thing? Then apologize. Clearly, completely, and sincerely (here is a little illustrated guide we made to help you with this).
Sometimes people with more power in a situation like to imagine that apologizing makes them weak but that’s… never true? There may be a situation in which it is, but I cannot think of one (and I’ve spent two dog walks and lunch trying). Being willing to apologize when you’re wrong build trust and shows character – it is a hallmark of an actual leader, as opposed to a ruler. So that’s out of the way.
Following that, we probably need to talk about power. Sometimes power structures and hierarchies are comfortingly straightforward – the employer has more power than the employee, the teacher has more than the student, the star has more than the fan. Sometimes they’re harder to discern, especially when power is determined more by social locations and privilege/disempowerment than by easy-to-clock things like “do you sign my paycheque?” And sometimes two people in the same conversation can each feel like they have more power (or less) than the other person, leading to a wildly fertile opportunity to grow ever more misunderstandings and upsets. In almost all situations, with more authority comes more responsibility. So the first thing I am always looking for in a situation of conflict is: who holds the authority in this situation? Whoever it is, that’s the person I want to be making the moves to make things right. Sometimes that’s teaching, sometimes it’s scaffolding, sometimes it’s just saying sorry and committing to do better. If you have more responsibility in a dynamic, it is your job to do the heavier lift.
And then, we get into the messy interpersonal business where both parties feel wronged and neither wishes to apologize because they also feel wronged. They also feel pain.
This is, no lie, the hardest. I struggle with it, as I think many people do. When I feel like something has been done to me, then I might? maybe? feel ready to own some part of the situation if I receive an apology first and then perhaps. This is useful information, actually. Because when I receive an apology, I feel like my complaint or upset has been heard, and it leaves me feeling more willing to hear someone else about their upset or complaint. So when theres a standoff, what does one do?
I see a couple of options. If what I need to feel heard and validated before I can engage in my part of an apology, maybe there’s someone else I can discuss my upset with who can help me feel validated before I discuss my feelings with the person I’m made at? If I know that being heard makes people feel more ready to apologize, can I hear them out and apologize for my part before I ask for an apology? But also: based on past experience, do I anticipate that my concerns and needs will be heard? Or do I anticipate being stonewalled and belittled? That’s… not a great sign that things are going well in this relationship, honestly. So if your friends or friendly acquaintances are responding to your upset with a full brush-off, maybe you’ve actually dodged a bullet.
I find myself, at this point, wondering whether you have any sort of little speech or update you give people so they know what is and isn’t okay for you? Do you say “Hey, FYI, if we’re going to hang out you should know I’m very sensitive to loud noises and if you come up behind me I will probably have to work super hard not to punch you so please don’t do that, thanks,” or something similar? If not, perhaps a thing to consider? I am asking mostly because I think there’s a pervasive, fucked-up, kyriarchy-authored script that runs in the world for people who live in stigmatized identities, which goes “just be as little trouble as possible. Don’t ask for anything extra or anything special or stand out in any way of you want people to let you stay.” The problem with this is that you DO have needs and sensitivities and – true facts – it’s easier for people to hear these things when they’re not also feeling guilt. So, you may want to just tell people up front – here are a few things I can’t handle, thanks for being careful with them. Then invite them to share theirs (and if they act irritated about it or roll their eyes, you have an important datapoint about whether you and this person will be able to be friends, honestly).
Okay, eleventeen paragraphs later, I find I have some actual advice:
1. You never have to apologize for who you are. If someone is upset that you’re queer or trans or neurodivergent or literally any other characteristic of your person-ness, they can go bother someone else with their feelings about that.
2. If the cultural power differential is tilted in their favor – they’re straight and you’re queer, they’re NT and you’re ND – and there’s a question of someone having inadvertently/thoughtlessly upset someone else in a way that’s related to those characteristics above, then I think you can choose to apologize but, as above, I want to see the person with more privilege do the heavier lift. This is complicated because I want everyone to be accountable but also I want people with more privilege to be more accountable in interpersonal disagreements of this type. Are you, Internet Reader, a neurotypical person living in a world that specifically prioritizes and values the ways you naturally communicate? Then perhaps you can go ahead and be the one who adapts to the ways your neurodivergent friend communicates or interacts, since they spend a LOT of energy trying to accommodate in school/work/&c settings and you spend less (maybe even none, depending on other factors).
2a. Rule 2 can also be complicated by other factors, though, so everyone watch your assumptions, please – especially in academic settings, especially around socio-economic class.
2b. and also just generally, don’t be an ass about people’s needs for accommodation please. Like, it might indeed be a real fucking bummer that you and your friend who uses a power chair can only meet at the ONE cafe he can get into, move around in, and use the washroom in. You might think the coffee from there sucks and the baked goods are meh but do you know whose fault that is? NOT HIS. Your irritation would be much better directed at all the cafes still happily opening all over the city that are not accessible.
3. If it’s regularly scheduled disagreement related to interpersonal whatnot, then Rule 2 doesn’t apply. Everyone should probably apologize and then go for milkshakes.
3a. True story: I sometimes apologize for things I don’t feel sorry for and make changes that I feel impact me negatively more than the unchanged behavior impacts the other person negatively for strategic reasons – for employment reasons, for community reasons, to because I can see it’s wildly important to the other person to get their need met or to feel Correct about this particular thing. I try not to do it often, but if I either need or like someone/something enough I will. I try not to let it become a pattern, where I always feel like I’m compromising my values to help someone else feel better, though. This is less advice, and more a note to say sometimes we do things to serve our larger goals and that’s okay.
4. Are you still just really not sure? Here’s the acid test: are you willing to (or able to) back up your Sorry with changed behavior? If not, don’t apologize. Don’t smooth over a rough interaction with some sorry-sorry-sorry and then keep doing the same shit. Say sorry and make change or be on your way.
I hope any of this helps, Brave Correspondent, but also I want to say – last but not least – a loving partner and a few close friends is pretty great. I know that the age of social media especially makes it seem like everyone has a giant circle of friends that all pile out of their Jeeps at the beach with wine coolers and a volleyball net or whatever. In point of fact, not everyone has bunches of pals in real life even if it looks like that from the outside. Besides which, I would argue, a few ride-or-die friends who you really know are in your corner, no matter what, are a richness you can rest into.
love and courage,
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