The Power of Apology

Definition: The Oxford English Dictionary tells us “apology” means a defence, justification, an excuse. Its modern usage has shifted to mean “to acknowledge and express regret for a fault without defence.”

What are the Elements of Apology?

1. Acknowledgment.

Jeffrie Murphy (Murphy and Hampton, 1988, p. 28) speaks of the role of ritual in apology. Often, when an apology is called for someone has attempted to degrade or insult the other; to bring them low. “As a result, we in a real sense lose face when done a moral injury…But our moral relations provide for a ritual whereby the wrongdoer can symbolically bring himself low – in other words, the humbling ritual of apology, the language of which is often that of begging for forgiveness.”

There is a “ritual” of apology. As the Oxford English Dictionary says, there must be an acknowledgment – recognition – of an injury that has damaged the bonds between the offending and offended parties. The offending party must personally be accountable for it. This can’t be “I’m sorry if she felt hurt”, there is an element of blame in this, and usually a “BUT” “she is too sensitive”! There are no ‘buts’ in an apology. Rather, I am acknowledging my role as the offending party in inflicting injury. I have no excuse for what I did. There are a number of great examples of perfect apologies in political circles. David Cameron’s apology for the events of Bloody Sunday, some 40 years after the event, following the Saville Report, was a perfect apology, no ifs, no buts, no maybe.

2. Affect.

In order to truly accept responsibility, the offending party must also be visibly affected,  personally, by what s/he has done. I am troubled by it. Scholars who have tried to parse this experience variously name that sense as “regret” and “shame.” Whichever the affect, the feeling has to be there! Nothing offended commentators about President Clinton’s “apology” more, than its lack of felt regret. As Mary McGrory (1998 p. A3) said about Americans listening to it, “Lying and adultery they could handle, but not being sorry, especially after you’re caught and cornered, is unacceptable.”. Eventually Clinton got the message!

3. Vulnerability

Finally, an apology is offered without defence. A key aspect of apology is the vulnerability involved. An effective apology may be accepted, but as Erving Goffman (1971) taught so well, an apology may be offered, forgiveness may be begged for, yet it may be refused. The offender may have owned up to the wrong inflicted, but this does not guarantee that the offended party will accept the apology. Instead, the offended party can ignore or punish the offender for the wrong done. The offended person may feel that the offence, although acknowledged, is so incalculable — so enormous — that it is simply “unforgivable.”

The offending party is placed in a potentially vulnerable state in offering the apology knowing that the chance exists that it may be refused.

More than anything else, it is vulnerability that colours apology.
“Indeed, many of us know well the moment in relationships when we have been offended, and we decide whether we will attempt to repair it.  Is it worth it? Sometimes it is, other times it is not, but in important relationships it is crucial. It allows us to move on with our lives, warily at first, but with increasing confidence that the relationship is worth repairing, and that all will be well”.

Source:(MEDIATIONQUARTERLY, Vol.17, Number3 (Spring2000) (Carl D. Schneider)