Manners & Misdemeanors

How to Say You're Sorry (And Sound Like You Mean It)

Our take on the sore subject of apologizing.
IMAGE NYPL Digital Collections
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In the 1970’s tearjerker Love Story, Ali MacGraw assures Ryan O’Neal that “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” If only it were that simple.

Beyond the confines of Hollywood, apologizing is a fact of life—even though the process can sometimes be about as enjoyable as having a root canal or cleaning leaves out of rain gutters. To apologize is to admit imperfection, and doing it properly requires a dose of humility. But rest assured that a genuine apology frees you from having to defend your less-than-shining moments (and we all have them).

How we handle the fallout of our bad behavior is the difference between a life filled with grace, mutual respect, and compassion, and one that is “nasty, brutish and short.” The choice truly is ours.

Here's the most effective way to use the “S” word when you're dealing with...

YOUR SPOUSE OR YOUR SIGNIFICANT OTHER

Admit it—you’d rather sign up for combat duty than step off of your self-righteous pedestal following a spat. But what you learn over the years is that it doesn’t actually matter who’s right; it matters that you emotionally wounded your partner. Remember that feelings are subjective and pride goeth before the marriage counselor. To that end, don’t do it until you’re ready to make it count. A casual sorry tossed over your shoulder on your way to the gym won’t cut it. Take the time to sit down with your partner, look him or her in the eye, and be specific: Show that you understand how your actions might have hurt them (even if you think they overreacted).


YOUR CHILDREN

Some of us were born in the era when children should be seen and not heard. We didn’t sass our parents or offer countering opinions. “Because I said so” was all Mom or Dad needed as justification for the most unreasonable command. As a result (and with all due respect to the generation that thought breastfeeding was bad for babies and smoking through pregnancy was good for the nerves) many of us have spent years in therapy. While on one level our parents had it right—your children are neither your peers nor your buddies—they are, nevertheless, human beings. Sometimes we overreact to a moment of disrespect; we yell and we lose our tempers. It is not a sign of weakness, but indeed a mark of maturity to show your child that you recognize your flaws and regret overstepping the mark.

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A COLLEAGUE OR EMPLOYEE

As in the case of apologizing to children, acknowledging a misstep to a coworker strengthens your relationship by building trust. This is especially true when the person is an employee or staff member. The individual will not mistake your kindness for license, but on the contrary, feel all the more loyal. One piece of advice? Self-deprecating humor can ease a world of tension.

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About The Author
Susan Fales-Hill
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