“To be a deposit, an apology must be sincere. And it must be perceived as sincere.” Stephen R Covey
In the magnificent TV series ‘NCIS’ the main protagonist Leroy Jethro Gibbs has 52 rules, one of which is ‘Never apologise’. Much as I admire Gibbs, I have to disagree.
I may have offended someone, and the way I feel when I just think I have offended someone is debilitating. Even, occasionally, to the point that I feel uncomfortable even if that ‘offence’ was committed while complying with my own values or because of a misunderstanding. For example, if I take a position on a legal point based on my unifying principles and am absolutely positive that my position is correct, then someone else’s taking of offence causes me upset. Go figure. In the same way, if my position turns out to be ill-informed, I feel guilty even though it was done through ignorance.
Which means when I say ‘I am sorry’, I really mean it. Now, a side benefit of such sincerity is the heightened likelihood of forgiveness for the offence, but that is not, I emphasise, why you should apologise. Apologising for the purpose of getting forgiven is not the point – apologising because it is called for is the motive. What happens afterwards is neither the motive, nor a given.
Ever had one of those conversations, “I’ll say sorry if you say sorry”? That is not an apology, that’s a negotiation with no meaningful intent to give anything in return for what is obtained.
A sincere apology is given because it is called for, not to get something in return. In fact, an apology is given because you’ve already taken something without permission. You’ve taken advantage, possession, or liberties. and that has an emotional cost on the offended party.
On the other side of the coin, I never apologise if I haven’t done anything. If I am wrong, I am wrong. If I am to blame, so be it. If I have done nothing wrong, if I have no responsibility for the offence, I will not apologise. One reason for not apologising is because to do so would be insincere. If I feel I have not offended, how can my apology have meaning?
I admit that governments’ apologies for any offence committed by their country 200 years before they were born offends me because it is absolutely meaningless. The offenders are dead; the chances are that the people making the 200-year-late apology have (more often than not) addressed and repaired the system or situation that would have called for the apology – for example, the UK apologising for slavery 240 years after being the first ‘civilised’ country to abolish it irks me. Particularly as many of the countries from which slaves were taken still exercise slavery in all but name. (You can be sorry it happened, without being responsible for it – that’s not an apology, it’s sympathy, which is different.) Demanding a meaningless apology serves no-one, nor will the apology mean anything. (Except to the lawyers waiting in the wings to sue ‘today’ for ‘yesterday’s’ tort.)
“When you bow, bow low” says the Chinese proverb, meaning when you apologise or show respect, mean it – or don’t bother.