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:
- Communicate understanding that you behaved badly (and own responsibility for it),
- try to fix the negative consequences of that behavior, and
- 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.
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.