[Epistemic Status: This post is aimed at people who've hurt loved ones by trying to fast talk their way out of apologies; remember the law of equal and opposite advice. A different version of this post, with examples drawn from responses to #MeToo, previously appeared on my blog.]

When news of Meltdown and Spectre broke, Intel released one of the worst non-apologies I've ever seen.

They lead with "Intel believes these exploits do not have the potential to corrupt, modify or delete data", which is only a consolation if you don't care about any of your passwords being stolen by hackers. They follow that one up with 'Recent reports that these exploits are caused by a “bug” or a “flaw” and are unique to Intel products are incorrect', which is baffling, until you realize that they're actually using conditional logic in a press release.

They end the train wreck with "Intel believes its products are the most secure in the world", which makes me worried that Intel management has lost touch with reality.

I might be old fashioned, but when a hardware manufacturer ships a security flaw that's this big, with a fix that might severely impact performance, I expect an apology, not a rearguard.

What I mean is: as long as you're defending yourself, you aren't internalizing the consequences of your actions. For as long as you keep fighting, you get to keep believing that maybe consequences won't materialize. Maybe you'll say the right thing; maybe the consequences will disappear.

An apology accepts consequences.

Imagine yourself arguing with someone you've hurt. Imagine the wiggle words and excuses you might use. Imagine how hard it is to be quiet, to listen without arguing or defending yourself when someone tells you that you've hurt them.

Doing that, despite the voice inside you telling you to fight, telling you to try and get away clean, that's scary; that's difficult. That's a surrender.

Of course, surrendering is just the first step. It's best if you back it up with something of substance. My four-step algorithm for a proper surrender-apology goes:

1. How did I hurt them?

Sometimes people will tell you straight up how you hurt them. Others won't. And when you're proactively apologizing, you may know that you did something likely to hurt someone, but not exactly how you hurt them.

To figure out how you hurt someone, consult your mental model of them. Try and remember what makes them sad or insecure. How did your action intersect with that? Don't assume they'll be hurt in the same way as you would. Let's say you played a prank on a co-worker involving paint that ruined their outfit and made them really mad. You might be mad if someone played a similar prank on you because of the ruined clothes. But maybe they're mad because they're quiet and anxious and you put them on the spot in an embarrassing situation in front of a lot of people. Therefore, it's best if you don't focus your apology on the clothes, but on the embarrassment.

If you genuinely can't do this, you can ask. But be warned that people operating under guess culture won't enjoy that.

2. Validate and Apologize

Here's a good script for the start of an apology:

"I am really sorry that I did X. It seems like the kind of thing that would make you feel Y, which makes a lot sense. It's crappy that I did that to you. You are an important person in my life and I want to work to avoid doing this again."

Above all other things, avoid the passive voice here. There's no point being sorry that someone "was hurt". Nothing says "I am apologizing only because it socially expected" like the passive voice.

Notice also that this script validates what the person is feeling. It proactively assures them that there isn't something wrong with them for feeling hurt. It makes it clear that their response is reasonable, expected, and that you're the one who did something wrong.

(Note that you should not reassure someone that their response is reasonable if it demonstrably isn't; please don't tell someone throwing a cup at your head is reasonable.)

This is one opportunity to surrender. It is excruciatingly difficult to accept full responsibility for your actions without giving any excuses. But it's important that you do that first. It shows how serious you are and really helps to validate the emotions of the person you're apologizing to.

3. (If desired) Explain yourself

After you've made a mistake, people often want to be assured that you are a fundamentally reasonable person who doesn't go around hurting friends for fun. If someone asks you "why?", you should be prepared to explain yourself.

I think it is often best to be very honest here, which means you first have to be prepared to be very honest with yourself. "I just don't know what came over me" is a comforting excuse; it implies that this was sudden, incomprehensible, and unlikely to happen again – so don't allow yourself to believe it! In almost all cases, it can be replaced by something like:

- "Our relationship made me feel undesirable and they made me feel sexy again"

- "I thought it would be fun and that I could convince you to feel okay about it later"

- "I'm so used to doing things for other people. I thought 'fuck it, I'm going to do this just for me'"

Here you must surrender any belief you have that what you did "just happened". There's almost certainly a reason for it and the reason is probably uncomfortable – and probably points to some other problem with you or your relationship.

I have a bad habit of leaving this step out, even when asked. Part of this is that I'm personally against excusing myself and part of this is that being "against excuses" is a great cop-out when you aren't very proud of your actual reasons. But I'm trying to get better, because I think people do find it discomfiting to have their request for explanation ignored.

4. (If desired) Discuss how to avoid this in the future

This is another step that it's tempting to jump to, perhaps before you've even finished apologizing. It's nice to believe that if you convince someone that you'll avoid something in the future, you don't really have to apologize for it now.

Instead of rushing into this, you should wait until the person you're apologizing to has had time to digest your apology and thought about what they want. Maybe they don't want to talk about it, or maybe they have specific things they want from you and don't want to feel like they're fighting against your plans for the future.

What I'm saying is that while this can be useful, it can also hurt. Make sure whoever you're apologizing to is ready to hear this part of the apology and wants to hear this part of the apology.

How you plan to avoid your mistakes in the future will probably be unique to your circumstances. That said if you would do the same things again in the same situation because you expect it on average to be positive, you aren't doing anyone a favour by lying about it. Address the ways in which your decision making was suspect. Don't weasel out of anything by promising not to do specific actions when you know full well you'd do the same general thing again.

And if you've hurt someone in the same way a bunch of times, you may find that plans no longer cut it. Them forgiving you can become contingent on results, not words.

Ultimately, an apology is an acknowledgement that you would have acted differently in the situation if you were better at acting the way you want to act. An apology indicates a willingness to change. If you instead endorse the actions you took and have no intent of deciding differently in the future, you shouldn't apologize at all.


Most of the cultural examples of apologies we get are like Intel's (I'd say that they're similar except that they include the phrase "I'm sorry", but the apology I received that first led me to put down these steps didn't include those words either). Given this, it's no wonder that it's easy to learn counterproductive ways to apologize.


I'd like to thank Tessa Alexanian, both for providing many very useful edits on the original version of this post, and for pushing me hard to cut all unnecessary words from this version.


17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:22 PM
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On equal and opposite advice: many more people want you to surrender to them than it is good for you to surrender to, and the world is full of people who will demand your apology (and make it seem socially mandatory) for things you do not or should not regret. Tread carefully with practicing surrender around people who will take advantage of it. Sometimes the apparent social need to apologize is due to a value/culture mismatch with your social group, and practicing minimal or non-internalized apologies is actually a good survival mechanic.

If you are high power, high status, low agreeableness, or inescapable to a certain set of people, and you often find yourself issuing non-apologies, then this may indicate blindspots (you're doing things you don't want to do without realizing) or that your exercise of power/disregard of social reality is hurting others.

If you are already highly agreeable, you currently have low mana (https://www.lesserwrong.com/posts/39aKPedxHYEfusDWo/mana/), or you feel like you can't escape a certain set of people who you need to apologize to, then internalizing apologies may be pushing in the wrong direction and overwriting your values with theirs.

I like this comment for cleanly encapsulating advice for different use-cases.

many more people want you to surrender to them than it is good for you to surrender to, and the world is full of people who will demand your apology (and make it seem socially mandatory) for things you do not or should not regret.

This was my first thought, too. I'm all in favor of the argument against weasel apologies, but sometimes the reason you're giving a weasel apology is that, by your own lights, you didn't do anything wrong.

Weasel apologies are never appropriate, but sometimes a sincere one also isn't appropriate. Sometimes the appropriate response is "No, I did the right thing here. Sorry, but no social surrender will be forthcoming." You'll have to accept the probable social consequences, of course, but that's part of the price of integrity.

I think you might be missing the point of non-apologies.

You can usually think of the person offering the non-apology as having this internal monologue:

“I did nothing wrong. What I did was ok, or necessary, or possibly even right. You didn’t like what I did. It’s even possible you were harmed by it—though perhaps you’re exaggerating, or making it up. Still, it sucks that you are unhappy; I certainly don’t want that. But that doesn’t mean that I was wrong to do what I did, or that I owe you an apology.

“The cultural script in this situation demands that I apologize. Very well; if you insist on forcing me to do so, I will kowtow to the social obligation to apologize, to the extent necessary—but no more than that. As much as possible, I will avoid admitting that I did anything wrong—because I didn’t. As much as possible, I will avoid acknowledging that you have the moral high ground—because you don’t. As much as possible, I will avoid saying that I should’ve acted differently—because there was nothing at all wrong with the way I acted (except, perhaps, I should’ve been better at avoiding getting caught).

“You want my submission. I give you as little of it as I can get away with—because, in fact, I owe you none.”

Now, whether the non-apologizer is right in thinking this way, is another matter. But someone who is thinking thus, will be swayed by exactly none of your arguments.

An apology experiment: "Does Apologizing Work? An Empirical Test of the Conventional Wisdom", Hanania 2015:

This paper presents the results of an experiment where respondents were given two versions of two real-life controversies involving comments made by public figures. Approximately half of the participants read a story that made it appear as if the person had apologized, while the rest were led to believe that the individual stood firm. In the first experiment, involving Rand Paul and his comments on the Civil Rights Act, hearing that he was apologetic did not change whether respondents were less likely to vote for him. When presented with two versions of the controversy surrounding Larry Summers and his comments about women scientists and engineers, however, liberals and females were much more likely to say that he definitely or probably should have faced negative consequences for his statement when presented with his apology.

My regular recommendation for apologies is Aaron Lazare's book, "on apology". Which gave me a solid understanding on what apologies are and are for.

So, the Love Languages guy has a book about "Apology Languages", which I thought of while reading this post because all of your apology scripts sounded awful to me and I would much rather hear something other than that. Since he wants people to buy his books he doesn't seem to have a summary all on one page of all five but there are various blog posts condensing the idea and some official-website excerpts/blurbs if you Google it. Like with love languages, there's some supposed backing to the model but it's a convenient shorthand for usable concepts even if the backing turns out to be dodgy.

Since he wants people to buy his books he doesn't seem to have a summary all on one page of all five but there are various blog posts condensing the idea and some official-website excerpts/blurbs if you Google it. Like with love languages, there's some supposed backing to the model but it's a convenient shorthand for usable concepts even if the backing turns out to be dodgy.

Mild (lazy) request for someone with 5 minutes to look up such a post to link to.

Also, Alicorn, curious to hear more about your apology language and/or what feels bad about the script in the OP and/or what feels good about the version you'd prefer.

I'll just add that often the thing you're apologizing for isn't that serious. By all means own up to your mistake, but also take it as an opportunity to make the other person feel better with a bit of theatrics and fun, not just painful sincerity. If they still insist on making you prove that you feel bad, that might be a message on its own :-/


Relevant to this, I think, is the context of the original version of this blog post (link in OP). There, the person demanding the apology is not a loved one. There, the intended message is indeed of the sort that you allude to.

I found Kevin Simmler's observation that an apology is a status lowering to be very helpful. In particular, it gives you a good way to tell if you made an apology properly - do you feel lower status?

I think that even if you take the advice in this post you can make non-apologies if you don't manage to make yourself lower your own status. Bits of the script that are therefore important:

  • Being honest about the explanation, especially if it's embarassing.
  • Emphasise explanations that attribute agency to you - "I just didn't think about it" is bad for this reason.
  • Not being too calm and clinical about the process - this suggests that it's unimportant.

This also means that weird dramatic stuff can be good if it actaully makes you lower your status. If falling to your knees and embracing the person's legs will be perceived as lowering your status rather than funny, then maybe that will help.

I'd add that the desire to hear apologies is itself a disguised status-grabbing move, and it's prudent to stay wary of it.

Dogeza is a good illustration of this; this is the traditional Serious Anime Apology (probably it is also a traditional Serious Japanese Apology but in point of fact I have only ever seen it in anime so I'll stick to what I know) in which you kneel and then prostrate yourself fully, so that all four of your limbs and your head are on the ground.

Perhaps, perhaps not. My comment was intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive.

But if we’re going to talk prescriptively…

… then I will note that “unreasonable” is a matter of perspective. You think you’re being reasonable, I think you’re being unreasonable… what is there, except our respective opinions?

No, the right thing to ask isn’t whether one or the other party is being “unreasonable”; the right things to ask are:

  • Who has what power?
  • If I act in this-and-such a way, what will be the consequences?

Whether one of these questions or the other should get greater emphasis, depends on the situation.

Suppose that the person demanding an apology is your significant other. Thinking in terms of power in such a case may not be productive, but consider it in terms of actions and consequences:

  • If you apologize, your S.O. will be pleased; but you may be displeased (or not; this depends on your disposition, the history of the relationship, etc.)
  • If you don’t apologize, your S.O. will be displeased; but you may be pleased (ditto)
  • In either case, your actions may prolong the relationship, or shorten it; they may make the relationship more harmonious, or more acrimonious; etc. (And of course these aren’t the only two options; there may be others.)

Note that this analysis is wholly unaffected by the question of whether your S.O. was being “reasonable” or not, in demanding the apology (their, or your, perception of their unreasonableness, may affect things—but not the fact itself).

Conversely, in the Intel case (and similar ones), a power-based analysis may be more useful. (I leave it as an exercise to other commenters.)

It seems like "reasonableness" is mostly about willingness to follow established precedents and norms, the main consequence of apologizing usually has to do with establishing new norms or reinforcing existing ones, and power is what you have when the established "reasonable" norm is to do what's in your interests--so these things should be treated as different manifestations of a single phenomenon rather than separate. In the Intel case, the obvious analysis is that admitting that they acted "unreasonably" could put them on the hook for replacing millions of defective CPUs, that is, a norm would be established that would transfer power away from Intel and towards its customers.

To be clear, it wasn’t my intent to suggest that the consequences-based and the power-based perspectives are different—I agree that they’re manifestations of the same phenomenon. It’s just that one may be a more intuitive way of thinking about certain situations than the other.

It seems like “reasonableness” is mostly about willingness to follow established precedents and norms, the main consequence of apologizing usually has to do with establishing new norms or reinforcing existing ones, and power is what you have when the established “reasonable” norm is to do what’s in your interests

Indeed, this analysis clarifies the relationship, and I agree with all of it.

I promoted this to curated for:

  • Being very specific and actionable.
  • Clear, concise writing.
  • Explaining both the model and the implications.

EDIT: Well this is embarassing. I had two tabs open and promoted the wrong one. My apologies for the confusion.