How to Apologize

by Alan Reinstein, English teacher

I’m going to offer a little primer in the civil act of apologizing — a short how-to guide for anyone who (a) has never been comfortable with saying, “I’m sorry,” (b) used to be comfortable apologizing but has somehow lost their mojo or (c) is a skillful apologizer and wants the how-to reminder for extra support and confirmation. My own credentials? My certification comes from the school of the deep desire to smooth over hurt feelings as quickly as possible; I’ve been apologizing for more than 50 years. So here you go:

1. Care. First off, you have to care about trying to fix what’s been damaged by your actions. You should feel bad that you hurt another person’s or group’s feelings — even if you don’t clearly understand how your actions caused harm.

And if you don’t understand how your actions caused harm, you’ve got to get there before you can move on to the next step. You can get there by listening to others and/or by taking time to self-reflect.

[And if you don’t care that your actions caused harm or about your relationship with the person or people who were hurt, then you’re not ready for Step 2. Stay where you are.]

2. Apologize. Acknowledge the harm your actions caused with specific language about what happened even before you express regret over what you did or said. “I’m sorry for what I did” is not enough; you’ve got to say what you did. Something like this, for example: “My actions and language outside the weight room the other day were awful because they made you feel not only unsupported, but also unsafe.”

No need to explain why you did what you did or explain your intentions or feelings. Keep your focus on what you did and what happened. People you’ve hurt want to feel that you are aware of the impact of your hurtful actions.

Also, no misbehavior is too small for a meaningful apology. If you interrupted someone during a discussion in a history class, then a short “Sorry I cut you off in class today” to your classmate on your way out the door can go a long way.

3. Forgiveness may not come. Be ready for this. An authentic and sincere apology is its own good, but it may not be enough to repair the damage you’ve done. No one owes you forgiveness. Your job is to acknowledge what you’ve done and show sincere remorse. That said, forgive yourself, by all means, as part of the process of moving forward into the final step.

4. Grow. Commit yourself to getting better. Make a mental or physical note to avoid the similar error that led to your poor behavior. The most authentic apology is expressed through your future actions. Forgiveness is more likely to come when the person or people you’ve hurt see that you have changed. Things take time.

March at Newton South had a new announcement from the principal each week identifying a different type of offense leveled at our community. First, there were boys who taunted girls outside the weight room; then there was a report of a noose (a racist threat) made out of toilet paper in one of the bathrooms; finally, there were two antisemitic expressions — a slur and swastikas — found also in bathrooms. 

From the misbehaving boys, there seems more hope for an authentic apology than from the other actors, and yet, even to those who presented racist and antisemitic symbols to our community members, the invitation for a sincere, earnest apology never closes.

As for how to forgive — there’s no primer that I know of. But know that forgiveness is also its own good.