Feb. 2011: Should you apologize?February 1, 2011
On a recent, snowy Saturday, I hopped onto one of the elliptical exercise machines at the downtown YMCA.
Thirty minutes into my workout, an off-duty Y staff member mounted the machine next to mine. Almost immediately, he began shouting jovially to others in that cavernous room. His voice was loud, boisterous and annoyingly continuous.
I turned to him and said, “Hey, buddy, take it easy. Quiet it down a little.”
He glared at me, and sarcastically whispered, “Is this quiet enough for you?”
Ignoring his question, I thought, “Who does this fat, obnoxious, dumb Italian think he is?” (Note the prejudices that emerged when I felt threatened).
Cupping his hands into a megaphone, his sarcasm continued, “Hey everybody, please quiet down! It’s not politically correct to yell anymore!”
Deciding to apologize
We exercised next to each other for 10 more chilly minutes. I dismounted my machine, walked over to the man and said, “Excuse me; I just want to say that was my fault. I apologize for interrupting you. My problem.”
I could see he was stunned.
“Well, uh, I am not innocent here either, you know, being sarcastic like I was.”
“It should have never gotten that far,” I said. “If I didn’t like the shouting I could have moved to another machine.”
He introduced himself to me, asked my name, and thanked me for the apology.
That was a good apology.
During the “10 chilly minutes,” I thought about what part of the interaction I was responsible for. Although I was also fully aware of his inconsiderate shouting, sarcasm and attempts to humiliate – I chose not to focus on those.
In taking responsibility, I neither exonerated nor accused the other; I directly, genuinely addressed my own part in the drama.
My willingness to focus only on my part of the problem, created the potential for a clean apology. My language was sprinkled with “I” statements and devoid of “you” statements.
Phrasing an apology
There are lots of ways to phrase a good apology, for example:
“I really don’t want to be nitpicking with you. Sorry.”
“I was wrong. I don’t really see a problem with what you did.”
“I shouldn’t have said that. Sometimes I act like a reptile. I apologize for that.”
“I can see how I came across as insincere. I’ll work on that.”
“I really blew it. Let me try it a different way.”
“I think I went too far. Sorry about that.”
Some individuals have a hard time apologizing, while others over-use apologies. Not all apologies are clean and appropriate, for example:
• Apologizing to placate the other, e.g.: Saying, “I’m sorry,” when you believe you had no part to play in what occurred;
• Apologizing to avoid tension or conflict, e.g.: using “I’m sorry” to short- circuit an important yet uncomfortable discussion
• Apologizing to get something in return, e.g.: apologizing to a board colleague the week before a key election requiring that colleague’s support;
• Apologizing sarcastically: “Geez, pardon me for not jumping every time you ask me to do something. I’m really sorry for not acting like a slave…;”
• Apologizing with cloaked criticism: “I’m sorry for correcting you, but something has to be done about your chronic lateness on projects;”
• Apologizing for the other: “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
• Apologizing with excuses: “Sorry I asked you to quiet down. I am very sensitive to loud noises and wasn’t wearing my ear plugs which I usually do. This time, I just left the ear plugs home, so that’s why your shouting was so annoying to me.”
In my opinion, the only way to know for sure whether an apology is warranted is to think through each situation. Automatically apologizing raises as much suspicion as automatically not apologizing.
What do you think?
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