Not so long ago I was in the awkward position of having someone try to explain to me why their partner said some horrible, shitty things about something that definitely did not need horrible shitty things said about it. They quietly and quickly tried to explain why the horrible shitty things had been said after the partner had left the room.
Look, I get it. It can be tempting to apologize for friends and loved ones – we want everyone to see the good things about them that we see. But apologizing for someone else isn’t being diplomatic or defusing a situation, it’s excusing and supporting shitty behavior, maybe because you don’t want to choose a side or rock the boat.
If we feel that someone who we love or respect needs to apologize for something, we should be in line to demand that apology. It’s not our place, obligation or right to apologize for someone else. It shouldn’t matter if:
- They’ve had a hard day
- They get like this when they’re tired
- They’re just crabby
- They didn’t mean…
- They’re just lashing out because…
- They’re just really passionate/sensitive about xyz.
- It’s the way they were raised. (<– let’s just strike this phrase from our lexicon, plz?)
By apologizing for someone, you are announcing that you think that they are doing it wrong – that the way they acted or the thing they said was done poorly, and that you know how to deliver their message better than they do. You might be assuming that they don’t know how they’re coming across, or that their audience isn’t understanding what your loved one intended to say. When you do that – when you try to explain – you are treating your friend/loved one AND your audience poorly; you are assuming an incompetence on one side or the other that likely doesn’t exist.
Unless someone is reaching out for help about how to better express themselves, it’s probably best to assume that what they’re saying is what they mean. There’s nothing wrong with asking for clarification (which may lead to some enlightening conversation!) but there is something very wrong with assuming that you can clarify for them.
Might be a time when you actually have some insight to why someone is behaving the way they are, and you might feel that their craptastic behavior is understandable. But if that’s the case, it’s probably their story to tell, not yours.
I should note that I have seen some good defenses of poorly-worded messages online, usually prefaced with something along the lines of, “What I think Cybil might be attempting to get across is…” or “If I understand correctly, Cybil is saying.” It can be done, but it’s important to note that you are projecting your understanding of the message, and in a way that includes Cybil in the discussion so she has a chance to respond if you get it wrong. But the more interesting conversations that I’ve taken part in usually ask for clarification, rather than attempt to offer it up. E.g., “Cybil, are you saying that…?” And defending someone is radically different than apologizing for someone. When you defend them, you are taking a solid position and agreeing with at least some aspect of their argument. An apology is an admittance of wrong-doing.
One last note: If you don’t know why someone is upset, or bent out of shape, or speaking harshly, it is likely you who don’t have all the facts. Or you might have some privilege that is keeping you from understanding. Or you might be trying to change someone into something that they’re not, something that you wish they would or could be.
When you apologize for someone else, it’s probably more about you than them.