The Art of Fake Apology

Occasionally people apologize, because they sincerely regret something they have done in past. If that’s the case, nice. Unfortunately, more often than not, apologies are manipulative lip service.

Let me translate what people actually mean when they say various standard phrases:

“I apologize for hurting you.” –> “I hurt you; I said the magic words, and now let’s forgive, forget, and move on. Now be content with my empty lip service and stop pestering me about putting my money where my mouth is. Or else you are a bad person for holding grudges.”

“I am sorry that you feel hurt.” –> “My actions were perfectly fine; it’s your reaction that’s problematic. I don’t want to apologize, because I did nothing wrong, but my public relations adviser told me that people won’t like me unless I do some lip service and publicly perform the spectacle of apologizing.”

“If I have hurt anyone out there, I am sorry.” –> “I didn’t really hurt anyone, so no harm done, and everything is perfect. Even if you claim that somebody got hurt as a result of my actions, I don’t believe you. On top of that, let’s just forget that some actions are always wrong regardless of whether somebody got hurt on this occasion or no as a result of random chance.”

“I apologize on behalf of John Doe.” –> “All bad things are John Doe’s fault. I did nothing wrong. We all know that I am not responsible for John Doe’s actions, because I am not John Doe, so I am using this ‘apology’ as an opportunity to blame him, demonstrate that I am a better person than him, and earn some social approval points thus elevating my social status by trashing another person.”

“I apologize on behalf of John Doe for being an obnoxious asshole.” –> In terms of meaning, equivalent to an insult, namely, “John Doe is an obnoxious asshole.” Add to this all the meanings from the previous “apology.”

“I apologize on behalf of my ancestors.” –> “I acknowledge that my ancestors/predecessors committed a crime. Your community has suffered for generations because of it, while I have inherited stolen property. However, since the original crimes were done by my ancestors, I cannot be held responsible for their actions. Of course, I do not feel like paying you any compensation from my own pocket.”

“I demand an apology.” –> “I want to make another person feel bad about themselves. I want to control another person and manipulate them into doing something against their will. After all, if the other person actually wanted to apologize, they would just do it, and I wouldn’t need to demand an apology.”

I inherently dislike it when neurotypical people say one thing but mean something else, when they engage in various spectacles in order to manipulate each other, earn social approval points, or try to establish a pecking order via lies and sneaky games. More often than not, verbal games about apologizing are exactly that.

By the way, apologizing norms differ in various cultures. A while ago, somebody (presumably from the USA) dared to type, “I apologize on behalf of Andreas Avester.” I considered that an insult, but I should probably give them the benefit of doubt. Maybe in their culture apologizing on behalf of others is more commonly accepted.

My opinion is that people cannot apologize on behalf of somebody else unless they are responsible for that person’s actions and were capable of influencing the unfortunate events. A parent can apologize on behalf on their child, because they failed to properly educate and supervise their kid. A boss can apologize on behalf of their employee. But if a husband were to publicly apologize for his wife’s actions, then that would subtly signal that the husband considers himself the head of the household and wants to publicly humiliate his wife, trash her, and establish himself as more cultured than her. And don’t even think about apologizing on behalf of some random person unless you want to piss them off.

Of course, you can apologize when you belong to a group of people who have collectively done something bad. And apologizing for the actions of your ancestors/predecessors serves the function of signaling that you disapprove of their actions—a useful action in a world where genocide denials are rampant.

So yeah, cultural differences yadda yadda. Or maybe Americans who are so keen to apologize on behalf of random people (a scenario in which a sincere apology is inherently impossible, because the person who apologizes couldn’t have possibly prevented the bad event from happening in the first place and thus cannot be held responsible or able to regret their own actions) actually mean these as mock apologies and stealth insults the way I perceive them. Who knows… I’m terrible at deciphering all those hidden meanings that people tend to imply when they say one thing and mean something else.

This, by the way, is why I hate having to apologize and hardly ever do it as long as I can avoid it. If I sincerely regret something I have done, I will think about how to compensate to the person whom I hurt. Otherwise, it would be just manipulative lip service. You know all those nasty phrases people tell each other. “I’ll pray for you.” “I’ll call you later.” “You look great.” “I’m sorry.” Mostly just lies. I’m theoretically aware that some people consider such platitudes useful for socializing and getting along with others, but I don’t like being forced to use them.

Also, when people apologize they often say something problematic that only makes things worse. Here’s an example from Mano’s blog.


  1. says

    Thank you for posting this, Andreas. I have thought a lot about this too, and you have clearly articulated here some of my foggier thoughts on the subject.

    For me, wanting to and learning how to sincerely apologize came about as a natural part of learning to “own my shit,” including my privilege, baggage from trauma, “fleas” from my toxic family-of-origin etc. I have since come to embrace the opportunity to give a sincere apology as a gift:

    – the simple acts of reflecting on the harm I caused and formulating an appropriate and sincere apology offer an invitation to learn, grow and become a better human being.
    – the person/group I have harmed is under no obligation whatsoever to even hear my apology; if they will, that in itself is a kindness to me.
    – if they will hear me apologize, they are under no obligation to accept it (e.g. its sincerity), and certainly not to forgive me. Those, too, are kindnesses to me, especially after I have caused them harm.
    – if they do accept my apology and forgive me, they are under no obligation to reconcile with me, or indeed ever tolerate my presence again. I have done the harming, and neither they nor I can guarantee I will not harm them again either in the exact same way or some other. Even a single chance to rebuild the trust I have broken and to make amends if possible is nothing short of an extraordinarily generous gift.

    Of course until Mano invents and commercializes time travel, one still cannot retroactively erase the damage. That is why I think of making amends as another gift, for much the same reasons.


    somebody (presumably from the USA) dared to type, “I apologize on behalf of Andreas Avester.” I considered that an insult, but I should probably give them the benefit of doubt. Maybe in their culture apologizing on behalf of others is more commonly accepted.

    That may be more true here, I don’t know. I’ve often thought the “rugged individualism” aspect of the USAmerican character is a bad joke in an objectively interdependent social species and society, and is really just a euphemism (and poor excuse) for unvarnished narcissism. So even if it is more commonly accepted here, that is not a good thing. It is still an insult, and as such does not deserve the benefit of your doubt.

    To me, how someone handles being called on the damage they’ve done speaks far more to their character than the original fuckup does. We’re all human – we all fuck up. But we don’t all own it.

    Speaking of apologies, I apologize for the novel! I have other thoughts, but I will STFU now because as it turns out, I have my own blog! WHO KNEW.

  2. says

    I also dislike it when someone tries to apologize for someone else.
    As an example an in-law’s girlfriends’s aunt acting drunk and racist and me expressing appropriate offense. Later the in-law’s girlfriend tried to apologize for the behavior, and they’re not the ones who acted racist. They can’t apologize for someone else.
    Invariably it seems to be a sense of in-group vulnerability from the group looking bad with the group not just being family. I’ve seen the behavior related to religion, politics…

  3. says

    Iris Vander Pluym @#1

    For me, wanting to and learning how to sincerely apologize came about as a natural part of learning to “own my shit,”

    I can agree about this.

    It is still an insult, and as such does not deserve the benefit of your doubt.

    I default to suspending judgment whenever I am not sure about other people’s intentions, because I cannot tell whether somebody is sincere or manipulative, straightforward or mocking. That happens routinely, because I’m terrible at noticing and deciphering some aspects of communication.

    Speaking of apologies, I apologize for the novel!

    I like it when people in the comment section contribute their own ideas about the topic. For me discussions are more interesting and I wouldn’t want to have a blog that is basically me lecturing my readers. And there is no maximum length limit how long a comment should be.

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