An Apology is a Surrender

byZachary Jacobi2y18th Jan 201817 comments


[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.