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Mea Culpa

mea cul·pa. Latin. through my fault; my fault (used as an acknowledgment of one’s responsibility).

Apologies have an interesting social function. I think that many people underestimate their power because they don’t necessarily “fix” the harm that was done, but in my opinion that’s an overly simplistic view of things.

Many people have trouble saying sorry. Some think that an apology is unnecessary if the harm done was accidental or unavoidable. (Possibly they also argue that accidental implies unavoidable.) Others think that there is no need to apologize if they believe they behaved correctly and that the other person should not have been offended or upset. There are also people who don’t believe in apologies because they don’t actually “fix” anything. And still others–the largest group, I believe–simply don’t like the feeling of apologizing, so they avoid it altogether.

But why? Maybe because apologizing puts you in a vulnerable position. It forces you to admit, implicitly or otherwise, that you were wrong. It forces you to confront the fact that your actions sometimes have unexpected negative consequences and that people often see your actions very differently than you do. It also opens up the possibility that the other person will reject your apology, and nobody likes rejection.

I definitely used to belong to this group of people. I hated apologizing. It felt crappy and even after I did it, I still felt like the other person was going to hold a grudge.

I’ve grown up since then, though, and now I give out apologies like some people give out hugs. I apologize for everything that I might’ve done wrong, from accidentally cutting someone off as we’re walking into a classroom to not answering a friend’s text in a timely way to seriously upsetting someone. I apologize even for things that many people don’t think require an apology. And it feels great. I feel like my respect and consideration is a gift, but unlike the gifts you buy, I can give out as much of this one as I want.

From this, and from the pain I feel when others don’t extend me the same courtesy I extend to them, I’ve started slowly figuring out exactly what the function of apology in human society is. It’s a social lubricant–and I don’t mean in the same way alcohol is. It’s a social lubricant in the sense that it keeps relationships going smoothly and provides a way for people to let each other know that they care about and respect each other. An apology rarely fixes the problem that it caused, but it lets the person who was harmed know that the other person still cares.

For instance, several weeks ago I posted something on Facebook that a friend of mine found offensive (it made fun of her future career) and she posted a really angry comment on it saying that she was offended. I honestly found her response completely overreactive and entirely too public. Nevertheless, I set that aside and acknowledged that she was upset and wrote her a message apologizing and explaining that I hadn’t meant to offend her. She responded with an apology for her overreaction and accepted mine. And everything went on just as it had before.

But if at any point during this interaction–if I’d decided that her overreaction absolved me from having to apologize, or if she’d decided that my apology retroactively justified her overreaction–then things wouldn’t have gone so well. In the first case, she would’ve been stuck with a grudge against me, and in the second, I would’ve felt taken advantage of, like my conscientiousness had simply been abused.

Apologizing is one thing that I believe I do very well, so it’s difficult to understand why others can’t do it too. Like listening, writing, and reading critically, it’s one of those skills that are lacking in American society. I think it’s because people fail to recognize the power that a simple apology can have, and I wish there were a way (aside from writing slightly presumptuous blog posts) to show them they’re wrong.

Comments

  1. says

    I really like this and find it very topical for me. I doubt I will ever get an apology from Goliath, yet I am certainly entitled to one in my opinion. Of course, that is only my opinion: heaven forbid that a public service department should have to lower themselves to admit they made mistakes! Unintentionally or otherwise, they made a mistake.

    • says

      You’re right. And unfortunately, it’s so rare for a government or a government organization to apologize for something. There’s also such a huge diffusion of responsibility there–each individual person in the department will probably blame what happened to you on someone else.

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