The Theology of Everyday Life: On Apology

Over the last decade or so, psychologists have been intensively investigating the process of forgiveness. Specifically, forgiveness has been show to be a pivotal aspect of achieving mental health, particularly when we feel we have been wronged. Forgiveness research is an interesting area where psychological research and faith intermingle. If you are interested in this work, I recommend starting with the published research of Everett Worthington. Dr. Worthington is considered to be the world expert in forgiveness scholarship. I've been fortunate to have had a few personal conversations with Dr. Worthington and can recommend him as both an outstanding researcher and human being.

Today, I'd like to reflect on the other side of forgiveness: Apology.

I recently read a great book by Aaron Lazare (2004) entitled On Apology (published by Oxford University Press). In On Apology, Lazare contends, and I think he is right, that the simple interpersonal act of a sincere apology can be a remarkably healing moment. An effective apology can take minutes but can wipe away years of anger and venom. In my own life, I've found that apologies, sincerely offered, can radically alter a relationship for the good. I've observed this within my marriage, with my children, at my work, and at my church. If I ever feel like I have hurt someone, I've found that the offering of an apology can almost immediately bring two people, once distant, together. Have you not observed the same in your own life?

What is interesting about Lazare's book is that after identifying the components of an effective apology, he examines how apologies go wrong. Generally, an ineffective apology is missing on of Lazare's critical ingredients. What are the ingredients of an effective apology? Well, that is complex question, and you'll need to read Lazare's book for a full account. But the most critical ingredient in an effective apology is acknowledging the offense. Most apologies fail right out of the gate because they fail in this most basic task. To effectively acknowledge the offense the apology must:

1. Correctly identify the party or parties to whom the apology is owed.
2. Acknowledge the offending behaviors in adequate detail.
3. Recognize the impact that those behaviors have had on the victim(s).
4. Confirm that the grievance was a violation of the social or moral contract between the parties.

Generally speaking, both parties, the offender and offended, must agree that all four parts have been articulated (overtly or tacitly) for the apology to be effective.

What is really interesting about Lazare's book is how he examines successful and unsuccessful public apologies (often those of politicians or celebrities). Historically, effective apologies do all four things listed above. Ineffective apologies have typically failed in one of the four areas. More specifically, Lazare has identified eight different ways people fail to adequately acknowledge the offense. These are:

1. Offering a vague and incomplete acknowledgement: "I apologize for whatever I did."
2. Using the passive voice: "Mistakes may have been made."
3. Making the offense conditional: "If mistakes have been made..."
4. Questioning whether the victim is damaged: "If anyone was hurt..."
5. Minimizing the offense: "There's really nothing (or very little) to apologize for..."
6. Using the empathic "I'm sorry" (That is, using the phrase "I'm sorry" not as an apology but as an attempt to empathize as in "I'm sorry if you are upset." The implication being: "You really shouldn't be upset.").
7. Apologizing to the wrong party.
8. Apologizing for the wrong offense.

This list is just fascinating in that you can hear all those failed historical apologies from politicians or celebrities ringing in your ears. The examples abound. My personal favorite is the good old "I apologize if I offended anyone." That "apology," as Lazare notes, is bad on two accounts. First, it employs the word "if." Which implies that perhaps no one was really offended. Second, the implication of the statement is that if you were offended, well, that's really your problem. Any normal person, the insinuation is, would not have been offended. All told, "I apologize if I offended anyone," is a pretty poor apology, despite how common it is.

As Christians, called to the ministry of reconciliation, we should all become masters of the art of apology. We should teach both ourselves and our communities how to effectively use this simple but nuanced interpersonal interaction. Toward that end, I recommend Lazare's book as an excellent example of how a psychological and social analysis can aid us in our quest to minister to the world.

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5 thoughts on “The Theology of Everyday Life: On Apology”

  1. Amba,
    I've always found the dual-meaning of "apology" interesting. It makes me think of a part in the book "Blue Like Jazz" by Donald Miller. In the book (I might not recall the exact details, but this is the general drift as I remember it) Miller and some Christian college students set up a confessional booth on a secular college campus. Only this confessional booth is a little different. Non-Christian students are invited to sit in the confessional and hear the confession of the Christian students. But the "confession" of the Christian students is not a personal confession, it is a communal confession, confessing all the sins of the Christian faith over history. All the bloodshed, anti-Semitism, and misogyny.

    As Miller tells it, this confession had a profound affect on the non-Christian students who "took" this confession. It signaled to these students, many of whom rejected Christianity due to its troubled past, that many of their Christian peers hated that history as much as they did. Plus, it also signaled that many contemporary Christians are humbled and shamed by the past and, as a result, they walk in this life humbly and confessionally.

    In short, Miller's exercise is an interesting conflation of the two notions of an apology, where the confession of the Christian students acted as both an "apology" and, counter-intuitively, as a "defense" of the faith (by demonstrating the true nature of the Christian faith).
    PS-I'm also very touched by the nice comments you have posted on your blog about my blog.

  2. Yes, I wish more people understand how the "... if I offended anyone" apology doesn't cut it.

    I have to admit that while I was trying to be good while reading this, what came to me was from the movie version of Damn Yankees, where the devil instructs Gwen Verdon to repeat "never feel sorry for anybody" some large number of times, which she does with impressive speed and rhythm. It's not the same as "never apologize", but the devil may have given that slogan to someone else. This is what our culture has taught me. I'm sorry.

    Some of my apologies are like that. "It's not my fault." But sometimes it's not my fault.

    A family member did teach me something once. She said, "If you step on someone's toes, just apologize, whether you meant to do it or not. It doesn't have to be a long speech." I'm not sure if she meant toes literally, but I have found this useful metaphorically. It doesn't take much practice to tell when someone's "toes" have been stepped on. So "if I offended anyone" is wrong both for not being able to tell and a poor apology. Then just say something. I haven't found I needed remedial training past that.

  3. What to do when someone is so committed to not apologizing that they refuse even to hear about the items and process covered in the book? When they have already given a non-apology ("sorry -you- got upset" kind of thing) and insist this is sufficient? Is this just stubbornness, or is something more going on?

  4. we do need theology of apology, specially in our middle east area , where so many daily crimes are practiced against young reovolutionists and coptic christians without mere feeling of guilt, we need it to be known and conceptualized by leaders in the state , the church and islamic institutions and parties . without a theology of apology , Egypt and so many arab countires will not enjoy change and progress.

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