The principle of no non-Apologies

by agentydragon2 min read28th May 20208 comments


Communication CulturesPractical

Original on my website

TL;DR: Principle of no non-Apologies: “Distinguish between saying I’m sorry and apologizing. Don’t give non-Apologies.” Do not Apologize when you don’t agree that you fucked up. When you fucked up, own the fuck-up and, if it’s systematic, commit to reducing future fuck-ups.

Everyday “I’m sorry” is usually not an Apology

“I’m sorry” can be used in several ways.

One way is using it as a conciliatory gesture, basically saying “you’re stronger than me, I submit, please don’t hurt me”. It’s one possible way I might react when under threat by someone stronger making demands I don’t agree with.

Another way is to say “this was accidental, I didn’t intend to hurt you”, like when you bump into someone when boarding your tram.

But when you use the words that way, you are not making an Apology. And it’s useful to distinguish between these uses of “I’m sorry” andactual Apologies.

Apologies and non-Apologies

Courtesy of an unknown source that I can’t immediately recall, you are Apologizing when you:

  1. Communicate understanding that you behaved badly (and own responsibility for it),
  2. try to fix the negative consequences of that behavior, and
  3. commit to work on not acting similarly in the future.

An Apology which holds to this definition makes you vulnerable (because you are open about the weakness that caused the behavior), and it’s not to be made lightly, because of the commitment. It is also virtuous to own your mistakes or systematic problems, and to work on them.

On the other hand, if you use the ritual apologetic words but do not meet these criteria, let’s call that a non-Apology.

A prototypical example is “I’m sorry you feel that way”, which happens when a sociopath in charge is forced by overwhelming force to “Apologize”.

“I’m sorry” that you tell your boss just to make them stop grilling you is also, under my use of the word, a non-Apology.

So is, in many (but not all) cases, a “sorry I’m late” I might say when coming to a meeting. Also the “bump into someone on the tram” example, and the “I yield I’ll do what you demand” example.

(So, notice that I’m not saying non-Apologizes are morally bad. Some of them are, but many are also just those tiny social rituals you need to do so you make it clear to people you aren’t a dick.)

Principle of no non-Apologies

My principle of no non-Apologies is two-part:

Distinguish between saying “I’m sorry” and Apologizing.

This first part I recommend adopting universally. Know the difference between the social ritual that evolved from small routinized Apologies and actual Apologies, and know which one you are doing at which time.

Don’t give non-Apologies.

This second part I apply to relationships into which I want to bring my whole self, mostly my personal relationships, but also some work relationships.

Unfortunately, many of us are stuck in power differential relationships with people who demand apologetic-sounding words, and there might be no better solution than to yield. But still, it’s good to know that you are saying “I’m sorry”, and not Apologizing. That way, you can appease without cognitive dissonance.

But in relationships with mutual care and respect and compassion, it should make sense that you shouldn’t be obliged to Apologize if you don’t agree that you did anything wrong. When you feel pressed to apologize, your first instinct should be to ask what you did wrong, and if there are different viewpoints, have a conversation.

If your behavior is worthy of an apology, don’t stop at “I’m sorry”. Understand why the behavior happened, and work to prevent it from causing more bad consequences in the future.

P.S.: Generalizations

This is just one instance of a more general move of looking at some social ritual (like apologizing) and looking at it a little “sideways”: getting back in touch with the original meanings of the expressions used in it. Rituals and words can lose meaning over time, and you can lose concepts when that happens. If you want to see what it’s like to look at things that way, I’ve had a pretty vivid experience of it after finishing Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.


8 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:52 PM
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"I'm sorry" is often used as an expression of sympathy - no relation to any apology.

Them: "My mom got cancer"

You: "I'm so sorry!"

(sorry for them, not sorry for anything you did)

Yeah, this is slightly annoying that we have this idiom. And unfortunately people sometimes take an expression of sympathy said as "I'm sorry" as an apology which makes them respond to what you literally said rather than the intent, sort of like if you said "bless you" after someone sneezed and they asked "oh, are you a priest?" or "no thanks, I'm an atheist".

I think the intent of "I'm sorry" here is to say "I regret this is happening to you" along with some combination of "I feel sorrow at hearing this new". Still, it's confusing.

My general policy is to try to avoid saying "I'm sorry" to mean "I sympathize with you" and go for something more direct like "that sucks" or "oh no" or just a wordless expression of sympathy through body language, although sometimes I say it anyway. Language is tough sometimes!

You're right, that didn't occur to me to mention. (My native language separate idioms for that use.)

I've made it a point to build up a set of phrases that allow me to express sympathy, and which have the advantage of being clearly visible expressions, rather than hollow tokens.

For example: "Your mom got cancer? That's a bad deal. Make it a point to spend as much time with her as you can. What can I do to help?"

I follow a similar policy of not apologizing unless I really mean it, and meaning it for me is acknowledging that I am ethically culpable for a harm caused. By this I mean something like I knew enough to have done otherwise, but through negligence or motivated reasoning either actively caused harm or through inaction allowed a harm to occur. In those cases an apology seems warranted.

I don't apologize for lots of things, though. If I was ignorant of information that would have allowed me to avoid the harm and then I learn about it, there's no reason to apologize, but there is need to acknowledge that I would have acted otherwise had I known and to publicly make that update. I think this serves much of the purpose of apology, but also recognizes there's nothing for me to regret: I did the best I could at still failed and that's okay.

(Of course, the real answer is that we all always do our best and couldn't have done anything other than what we did, so none of us need ever regret anything, but that's operating at the wrong level of abstraction. Apologies exist in the social ontology and need to deal with regret that can appear there even if there's no causal regret because there is no free will.)

Not sure if this is the exact source you were thinking of, but your definition reminds me of

I'm not sure whether this is good advice, or misleadingly overindexing on a very small part of the reason for such statements. Certainly, in your own mind, you should be self-critical and acknowledge things you've done wrong, in order to avoid doing them in the future.

But for relationship and communication purposes, I think the main benefit is the conciliatory aspects, not information-bearing or technical correctness. Don't mislead or make false promises (to anyone you care about), but in a conversation where someone has recently been hurt, it is often the wrong time to be coldly pedantic.

I have a number of relationships where I tend to say "I sympathize" or "I apologize" instead of "I'm sorry". The clarity really strengthens the sentiment. I also have a lot of relationships where "I'm sorry", comes across as more sincere, even though the meaning has to come from context.

I wrote it as the sort of advice that I think might have been useful to me a couple years back, and to counteract the specific issue of "getting cornered to into conceding that you messed up though you don't believe you messed up". I think it's good advice for people-like-past-me, but as a targeted intervention, maybe a TAP like "about to apologize for something that was not a mess-up --> don't apologize unless you mean it". (That is a salient trigger for me, because "I'm apologizing for something that was not a mess-up" has a distinctly different quality for me from "I'm apologizing for something I messed up" - sort of like "appeasing someone angry" vs. "asking for forgiveness".)

It's a bit unfortunate that English uses the words "I'm sorry" to express for what many languages have 2 distinct terms: "I apologize for messing up" and "I sympathize".

in a conversation where someone has recently been hurt, it is often the wrong time to be coldly pedantic.

Yeah. I haven't outright banned the words "I'm sorry" from my normal vocabulary. I will often say "I'm sorry that you're going through this" when it's contextually obvious that I'm not apologizing.

If someone is having a hard time caused by me, but I believe that I did not act wrongly (imagine scenarios like giving people negative feedback, breakups, defending boundaries, etc.), I avoid saying "I'm sorry", though I might say something like "I wish you weren't suffering" or "I understand this must hurt" or such. In these situations "I'm sorry" has the danger of being heard as "I apologize" or "I was wrong to act this way", and it's important to be able to stand your ground while e.g. giving people negative feedback, breaking up, defending your boundaries, etc.