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How to Write an Apology (and Avoid Non-Apologies)

If you follow this apology template step by step, it will helps you explain clearly what you did and understand how you affected someone else. Rather than having you fill in the blanks, it helps you find the words to say what you really mean.

By
Samantha Enslen, read by Mignon Fogarty,
October 12, 2017
Episode #590

A picture of a woman who might need to write an apology letter.

OK, let’s admit it.

None of us really likes to apologize when we’ve done something wrong. 

In fact, the ways we avoid apologies are so common they’ve been given names. There’s the “nopology,” the “unpology,” and the “fauxpology,” just for starters. And the hashtag #sorrynotsorry has trended for years. It’s used to indicate a sardonic lack of shame, as in: “Binge-watching instead of cleaning house #sorrynotsorry.”

So how do you write a good apology and avoid one that rings false?

Let’s start by talking about what NOT to do.

Types of Non-Apologies

  1. The “If” Apology
  2. The Passive Voice Apology
  3. The Reverse Apology
  4. The Florid Fauxpology

Let’s explore each non-apology a little further. 

The “If” Apology

First, avoid the “if” apology. It’s probably the most common non-apology. It can suggest oversensitivity, as in, “I’m sorry if you were offended.” It can imply that others weren’t smart enough to understand your intentions, as in, “I’m sorry if my remarks were taken out of context.” And it can suggest that a perceived wrong might not have even occurred, as in, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”

To avoid this, drop the “if” from your apologies and simply admit what you did. Instead of saying, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” try “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings.”

The “that” makes all the difference.

The Passive Voice Apology

Next, avoid the passive voice apology. Sometimes it’s hard to admit when you’re wrong. When that happens, we can subconsciously slip into the passive voice to give ourselves an out.

“I’m sorry I lost your keys,” becomes “I’m sorry your keys got lost.” “I’m sorry I backed into your car,” becomes “I’m sorry your car got hit.” 

This phrasing lets you acknowledge an offense—while softening the fact that you’re the one who did it.

The most infamous version of the passive voice apology is “Mistakes were made.” These three words have been used by politicians from Nixon to Reagan to Clinton. They’ll surely be used again, anytime politicos want to acknowledge a mess-up without admitting it’s their fault.

To fix this non-apology, use the active voice. Say clearly what you did. For example, “I’m sorry the dishes didn’t get loaded,” becomes “I’m sorry I didn’t load the dishwasher.” “I’m sorry there’s dog pee on the floor,” becomes “I’m sorry I forgot to let the dog out.”

The Reverse Apology

Next, avoid the reverse apology. This one is particularly nasty. It takes a wrong and lays the blame for it at the feet of the accuser. 

Say you had a bad cold and sneezed on a good friend—who justifiably yelled at you. You could say, “I’m sorry I sneezed on you!” Or you could say, defensively, “I’m sorry you’re so sensitive to germs.” 

Or imagine you ate all your roommate’s Captain Crunch. You could say, “I’m sorry I ate all of it.” Or you could say, “I’m sorry you’re not very good at sharing.”

In the first case, you’re admitting that what you did was wrong. In the second case, you’re admitting what you did—but you’re saying that the other person had no reason to take offense.

To reframe a reverse apology, focus on what you did—instead of how the other person reacted. “I’m sorry you’re so sensitive to cold,” becomes “I’m sorry I left the window open all night.” “I’m sorry your allergies are so bad,” becomes “I’m sorry I brought my dog to your house without asking.”

The Florid Fauxpology

Finally, avoid the florid fauxpology. This is the most ridiculous non-apology. Think “I offer you my sincerest apologies,” or “I deeply regret the events of that day to the core of my soul.”

These non-apologies use language steeped in emotion, and they may sound earnest at first blush. But their overheated language makes you wonder if the speaker is sincere—or is just trying really hard to sound sincere.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: if your apology sounds like soap opera dialogue, rethink it. While you’re at it, cut out unnecessary words, which can dilute the real intention of your apology. For example, “I offer you my sincerest apologies for mowing over your flowers,” would become “I’m sorry I mowed over your flowers.” 

How to Write an Apology

Now that we have these fauxpologies out of the way, let’s talk about the right way to say you’re sorry.

Luckily, there’s a foolproof template you can use. And the template’s not a trick. If you follow it step by step, it helps you explain clearly what you did and understand how you affected someone else. Rather than having you “fill in the blanks,” it helps you find the words to say what you really mean.

We got the idea for this template from Professor Aaron Lazare, and his book “On Apology.” Dr. Lazare explains that a genuine expression of remorse should include these components:

  1. Acknowledging the offense clearly
  2. Explaining it effectively
  3. Restoring the offended parties’ dignity
  4. Assuring them they’re safe from a repeat offense
  5. Expressing shame and humility
  6. Making appropriate reparation

This may seem a little much if you’re apologizing for a small offense, like eating the last of someone’s ice cream, but we’ve found that the little offenses sometimes sting the most. Eating someone’s ice cream becomes a proxy for how little respect you have for them. Or how few boundaries you have. Or how you’re a taker and not a giver.

Let’s see how an apology template might work in this situation. We’ll pair Dr. Lazare’s advice with a sample sentence.

Example of an apology using Lazare's advice

Notice that this apology doesn’t include a justification, such as “I only ate your ice cream because I was so hungry after working all night.” Excuses like this make you feel better. But they don’t mean much to your accuser—and can even negate the impact of your apology. 

It’s hard to do, but leave excuses out of your apology language.

Here’s another example of how the apology template might go:

Another example of an apology using Lazare's technique

Remember, even a sincere apology might not be accepted right away. If that’s the case, try to react with graciousness. You could say, “Thanks for hearing me out,” or “I know you’re still upset, but I appreciate you listening to me.” 

Then give the person time to consider what you’ve said and come to their own conclusion.

Fortunately, to paraphrase Justin Bieber, it’s often not too late to say you’re sorry. And even if you really messed up, a thoughtfully-worded apology can go a long way toward healing hurt feelings. 

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.

Sources

Lazare, Aaron. On Apology. Oxford University Press, 2005. 

Image courtesy of Shutterestock

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