What Makes a ‘Sorry’ Valuable

It is more than a ‘how to’ formula.

Apologies are messy. They are the direct result of an interaction between two feeling humans which has resulted in the percolating of negative responses that threaten a relationship.

It doesn’t matter the relationship: spouses, friends, colleagues, even corporations and its’ consumers. The foundation of apologizing is based on human response to what has mentally or physically threatened them.

In this day and age, sincere apologies are falling to the wayside. Society’s litigiousness has greatly impacted what can and cannot be said on corporate malfeasance. On the personal standpoint, there is an argument to be made that the dependency on social media rather than in-person dialogue has therefore weakened human interactions. Apologizing may be a casualty of this weakening, as interpretation puts additional pressure on the already stunted communication created by years of hiding behind a virtual wall.

Our technological progression has moved society from the Duels of honour that took place in history into online Duels. The former obviously took more guts as only one came out alive. One could argue however that the authenticity of placing your life on the line may highlight today’s lack of basic human consequences and remove the psychology involved in apologizing.

By no means am I at all advocating for a revival of the former societal conventions of settling a disagreement. What it does bring forward is the visceral reaction to the reality of human interaction, outcomes and the end result — human choice.We literally have less skin in the game.

The problem with this stems from a lack of intimacy and its ugly twin — fear.

Fear of vulnerability is the major cock block for the inevitable need to deliver a real ‘I’m Sorry’.

We could look at the subject of apologizing with a formulaic template like, “say this, then this, and then end with this”. The problem is that, at the core of the awkward situation that brought you to this crossroad, is the messy, complicated and unique dynamic that makes up human interaction.

Apologies resonate with:

  1. Intent — is the apology intuitively authentic to the receiver? People’s heightened defences are hardwired to dissect intentions in this critical time.
  2. Specificity — speaking to the details acknowledges your understanding about what got you to a position of having to apologize. It also allows the receiver to respond and provide their position regarding what took place.
  3. Sincerity — don’t say it if you don’t mean it. It does neither side good because the receiver obviously won’t believe it and you will not be able to embody what you said when you were trying to put a bandage on the relationship.
  4. Humility — this is a tough one. If you’ve made it this far on the evolutionary scale to be alive enough to have a relationship you have compromised, chances are you aren’t a fan of the lovely feeling that comes with humility. However, pride will do no good here. As mentioned in point no. 1 — heightened subconscious analysis has already kicked into high gear for the receiver.
  5. Kindness — The last thing people feel like when there are two sides at odds. This attribute I find is directly correlated to the interest the apologizer has in maintaining the relationship. While I put it at no. 5, it is arguably the premise that drives the other 4 points if it is actually an authentic apology.

A great example of a corporation’s apologizing is an excerpt from the leader of a company that is responding to an e-coli outbreak in their processed foods.:

We have an unwavering commitment to keeping your food safe with standards well beyond regulatory requirements. But this week our best efforts failed and we are deeply sorry. This is the toughest situation we’ve faced in 100 years as a company. We know this has shaken our confidence in us. I commit to you that our actions are guided by putting your interest first.

-Michael McCain, Maple Leaf Foods. August 23, 2008.

Obviously apologies are offered based on many other less than authentic motives. Sociopaths can even use this article to build their toolkit for conveying authenticity. The one thing that is nice about our human brains is that we can use the subliminal ‘sniff test’ to act as a secondary evaluation tool.

The Atlantic contributing writer Jacoba Urist spoke to the definition of the ‘non-apology’:

Editors at Oxford Dictionaries recently added an entry for “non-apology,” defining it as a statement that takes the form of an apology but doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge responsibility or regret. -How to Apologize, February 23/16

The underlying subjective values here — authenticity and intent.

Apologies allow the receiver to take your decision to be vulnerable to either take advantage or speak their own feelings. Either way, you have additional information regarding the relationship.

Apologies are intuitively weighted on the value the individual places on the relationship. While there is no matrix on the ratio for the apology/response scale, we can argue that the more invested two people are in a relationship, the more likely there will be a desire to return to homeostasis.

It is the KPI of true intimacy. If you acknowledge and provide room for humanity, it acts as the litmus test for any relationship’s progression. We’ve all been there. The insincere apology or the ‘kicking while you’re down’ response.

The gift of being human is that sometimes the vulnerability is met on the other side and grows that rare feeling of intimacy that much more.

Female startup founder. MBTI enthusiast. INTJ. Passion for research and making sense of the world, optimization and supporting others journeys.

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