When my daughters were playing a ton of soccer, we noticed something interesting: They and their teammates apologized a lot. They apologized to their own teammates after making an errant pass, they apologized to the opposing player after a physical play, and they apologized to their coaches even when they didn’t need to.
Now, of course not everyone had this perspective. There is lore that my youngest child told a teammate, “Don’t apologize, just make a better pass next time.” But it got so bad that during one game, all the way from the other side of the field we heard their coach yell at them, “Stop apologizing!”
I’m not sure if male players have the same attitude on the field, and I am in no way encouraging bad sportspersonship, but the coach’s point was that the time you took to look back and say sorry gave the other team the advantage. As my girls grew older, the apologies stopped, but I will never forget that voice from afar telling them to stop apologizing. It went against all that they were being taught in the rest of their lives: “When you make a mistake, apologize.”
Making a genuine apology is difficult. If you are genuinely sorry and express remorse, you are admitting to yourself and to the one you wronged that you are not perfect and that something you did hurt or offended them. No one wants to admit that they screwed up.
With this in mind, from Bruce’s Greatest Hits of Miscues and Foibles, here are some examples of times that my actions required heartfelt apologies:
- After being reminded multiple times that someone’s preferred pronouns were they/them, I misgendered them more than once during a meeting. Thankfully, when I apologized, they acknowledged that I had corrected myself at the time and that reaching out was meaningful to them.
- After listening to a particularly good sermon by a female colleague, when I bumped into her after the service, I stupidly commented on her shoes before complimenting her on her sermon. Yes, we were friends; yes, her shoes were super cool. But given how often women receive comments about their hair, their shoes, and the timbre of their voices rather than their intellectual contributions, what the hell, Bruce? What. The. Hell. I later apologized and learned that she hadn’t even noticed. The whole incident was troubling on many levels. But still, what the hell, Bruce?
- The many times I have overreacted to something my kids said or did. I try to apologize for my snark, raised voice, or disproportionate emotional response.
What does kindness look like in the face of acts for which people must be held accountable? This is one of the most challenging questions. Our society tends to value transactional relationships above all and often defaults to an “eye for an eye” retributive way of responding to wrongdoing. What role does forgiveness have in being kind?
“Making a genuine apology is difficult.”
The person who is wronged does not have to extend forgiveness to the perpetrator. Yet if the wronged person is genuinely interested in creating a space where some healing can take place, and the one who seeks forgiveness is genuinely remorseful, kindness will help create and tend that space.
While the examples I gave above were real and genuine opportunities to exercise my apology muscle, I also know there are levels of “wrongs” inflicted upon people and that my examples were relatively trivial. Our mistakes and offenses run the gamut from the seemingly small to the shockingly tragic, and thus our apologies must encompass this range of wrongdoing.
Our world is not short of victims and tragedies. From sexual and physical violence (#MeToo) to malfeasance on a massive scale (Enron) and institutionalized injustice inflicted upon groups of people (like internment of Japanese Americans, enslavement of Africans in America, and Native American genocide), apologies take very different forms and operate at different scales.
I want to be very careful not to equate my commenting on a colleague’s shoes before commenting on her sermon to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
They are not equivalent, not at all, and the apologies due each person or group harmed should take very different forms. At the same time, I do not want to make light of the small things we do that often mark the beginnings of relationship resentment and give permission for offenders to trivialize any injuries inflicted upon another as insignificant or inoffensive.
Good or appropriate apologies for any scale of offense have some common attributes: They take genuine ownership of the wrongdoing, are offered without expectation of a response, and are focused on the victim and not the perpetrator.
Bad or insufficient apologies usually begin with some form of, “I’m sorry that you were offended,” or “I’m sorry that my actions made you feel this way.” Neither takes responsibility for the action. In fact, it lays the onus for the offense on the victim. Known as gaslighting, or making the victim believe that it was their fault to begin with, this is one of the most common ways people apologize. If you do this, your apologies are meaningless, and you are only revictimizing the other.
Do not do this.
An apology that is truly meaningful makes no assumption and has no expectation of reconciliation. It is not transactional. It is simply one’s admission of having committed a wrong. Forgiveness is not a “get out of relationship jail” card.
“An apology that is truly meaningful makes no assumption and has no expectation of reconciliation.”
Apologies are often part of the healing of any relationship, but depending on the offense, to apologize while assuming one will be forgiven and accepted makes the apology hollow. It puts the focus on the perpetrator and not the victim. When we do this, we retraumatize someone and make reconciliation that much more of a distant possibility.
Genuine apologies that are fueled by kindness are ones that honor the dignity of each person — yourself and the other. Excuses built on kindness say to the one offering the apology that, in order to grow, we must acknowledge that none of us is perfect; that sometimes — well, often — we mess up; and that we can change our ways. For the other, it is a gesture that affirms what they have experienced — namely an acknowledgment of damage done to them and an offer of future change.
Truly examining how and when we should apologize is complex. The opening vignette of my daughters on the soccer field reminds us that girls and women have been socialized to apologize. Not so for boys and men, for whom apologizing is often perceived as weakness.
And while I do believe that this has shifted for many, one need look no further than popular culture and most political battles to see that toxic masculinity is alive and well in American culture. That said, for some cultures, shame and saving face are essential elements of relationships, and apologizing or calling someone out publicly creates other issues and problems.
I raise all these illustrations of the practice and perceptions of apologizing not as a prompt for us to apologize less or more, but to point out that, like most of life, apologies are filled with complexities, obstacles and realities that must be navigated.
Genuine apologies are never easy to offer. Nor should they be, because apologies give voice to part of our personhood that needs to change and grow. We are admitting that we are not perfect, not a finished project. So whether you’re nine or 90, change of behavior, growth of self, and potential forgiveness, while difficult, make the endeavor and struggle worth it.
This column is excerpted from the new book In Defense of Kindness: Why It Matters, How It Changes Our Lives, and How It Can Save the World by Bruce Reyes-Chow, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto, Calif., and senior consultant with the Center for Progressive Renewal. Follow him @breyeschow on most social networks. Contents copyrighted by Chalice Press.