Anatomy of an Apology

When we were children, we were told to apologize for saying mean things to each other. We were conditioned to accept those apologies regardless of whether those apologies were honest - they never were.

I was bullied as a child and was forced to listen to false apologies often. I resented those bullies because the more of those false apologies I heard the more I realized they all managed to blame me for their actions. As I grew up I mimicked those structures to avoid admitting that I was an abusive friend.

I was never taught how to issue a real apology, but like many things in my life I was able to infer it from what I had learned. Lately, I have seen that many people accept false apologies because they have never heard a meaningful apology.

I am going to teach you what an apology looks like so that you can understand when someone is not apologizing to you.

Anatomy of an Apology

An apology is made up of four things:
  1. Subject of apology
  2. Admitting guilt
  3. The guilty party establishing they understand why or how they hurt the other party
  4. Specific actions the guilty party will take to follow through on their apology
In most cases subject will be coupled with an admission of guilt as one statement, but for reading an apology it is vital that they are listed separately. I will demonstrate why you should look for each of those separately later.

Most false apologies will not include means of establishing that the guilty party understands what they did wrong. Showing that you understand why you were wrong is the only way to show you have a commitment to following through on your apology.

Below is an example of an apology being made in earnest:
"I am sorry that I read your diary. Those are your private feelings, and I have no right to read them. I will not do it again."
"I am sorry that I read your diary." - The subject of this apology is that the guilty party read the hurt party's diary. The guilty party also admits guilt by taking ownership of the action of reading the diary.

"Those are your private feelings, and I have no right to read them." - The guilty party establishes here that they understand how they wronged the hurt party. Knowing that they understand why they are making the apology goes a long way in showing sincerity.

"I will not do it again." - This is the guilty party's next steps. This is their follow through on this apology. Typically, "I will not do it again," is a poor follow through but in this case it is the most obvious answer. When the guilty party presents the hurt party with a plan to follow through on their apology, the hurt part is given the chance to decide whether or not it is enough for them.

Anatomy of a Non-Apology

Now that we have established what a real apology looks like, we are going to jump into a textbook non-apology and break it down piece by piece. The goal of this is to show how a non-apology is constructed to look at a glance like an apology, but never actually apologize or admit wrongdoing.
I want to apologize to the people I offended the past few weeks. It was never my intention to offend anyone. I realized my commentary [...] and actions could have been viewed in an unintended manner. Regardless of my intent, the comment was inappropriate. A mistake was made and I apologize. Moving forward I will be much more careful with what I say and do to avoid making people uncomfortable.
"I want to apologize to the people I offended the past few weeks." -  Offended is a word often used to diminish the value of the hurt party's feelings by downplaying it. This undermines any sincerity to this statement that is otherwise constructed to establish a subject and admit guilt. They take ownership of the offending action, but never state what the offending actions are, which implies they are being insincere.

"It was never my intention to offend anyone." - Once again they are downplaying the effects of their actions, but adding no real value. Apologies sometimes include an explanation of what decisions lead to their actions, but they should never contain an excuse. This statement is the guilty party trying to excuse their actions by saying their intent matters. Your intent never matters, your actions and the results of those actions do.

"I realized my commentary [...] and actions could have been viewed in an unintended manner." - This statement is shifting blame for the action to the hurt party. The guilty party's actions, that they established were not intended to be hurtful, were misinterpreted by the hurt party and that is what lead to them being hurt. This kind of blame shifting is very common in false apologies.

"Regardless of my intent, the comment was inappropriate." - This line is the closest that the guilty party gets to admitting guilt. They are saying regardless of their intent, the comments they made were inappropriate. However the guilty party does not establish why their comments were inappropriate.

"A mistake was made and I apologize." - The subtle wording here is important. The guilty party "apologizes," but never takes ownership and admits guilt for the mistake they are referring to.

"Moving forward I will be much more careful with what I say and do to avoid making people uncomfortable." - The guilty party has not demonstrated that they understand what they did was wrong, nor have they admitted specific wrongdoing. In addition they are still downplaying their actions by saying that the hurt party is only "uncomfortable." The guilty party does not state they will fix their behavior or change their behaviors outside of "be much more careful" to avoid "making people uncomfortable."

What is lacking from at all stages of this apology? An admission of guilt. A true admission of guilt would have taken ownership of the actions, but the entire non-apology is shifted to focus on the hurt party being "offended" and "misinterpreting" the actions of the guilty party. The follow through reads such that the guilty party will simply "avoid getting in trouble."

Conclusion

Understanding what makes up an apology is vital in learning to spot non-apologies. Politicians and people who work in public relations make a living out of crafting convincing non-apologies. Critical thinking is a skill that must be honed, and I hope that I have given you a strong enough framework and enough examples to give you a place to start when examining publicly issued apologies.

Remember, an apology is made up of four things: The subject of the apology. An admission of guilt. Establishing that the guilty party understands why they must apologize. A plan for following through.

About the Author

AwfulyPrideful is a networking and telecommunications student with a passion for infosec. They can be found on twitter talking about infosec, technology, games, and politics. They maintain a blog of their journey into infosec, explaining complex topics in layman's terms, sharing the lessons they learn, and providing commentary of tech culture. If you want to support them directly you can do so via paypal and patreon.

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