#SorryNotSorry: What You’re Really Saying When You Apologise

#SorryNotSorry: What You’re Really Saying When You Apologise

Sorry. Those five little letters we habitually utter. It seems the need to constantly apologise is deeply ingrained in our social psyche. How many times a day do you apologise for a supposed “offence or failure”?

But…what are you really apologising for?

Evolution has crafted the apology as a mechanism to mend dysfunction within relationships. Without its existence, we’d probably still react to daily annoyances and misunderstandings by throwing rocks (or iPhones) at each other. However, whilst this common mechanism has inherent value for social cohesion, an unconscious conditioning to instinctively taking and accepting blame is questionable.

steve carrell

The issue here is one of authenticity. Sometimes a situation calls for a ‘sorry’ – to show politeness, consideration or to legitimately correct an established wrong. However, when our apologies become an almost Pavlov-like regurgitation, it loses all its valuable significance. The true meaning of the apology has thus become an every-day distortion: we’ve adapted to forming a society of sorry-sayers. If ‘sorry’ is emitted at the same rate Oprah gives out cars, how can we trust the sincere intention of the apology?

Are you genuinely sorry about asking the person carelessly blocking the doorway to move? Or should you be using your apologies on something more worthwhile, like setting your mum’s kitchen cabinets on fire trying to deep-fry Oreos (personal suggestion: do not try this at home, or wooden articles may be harmed in making of said product).


From the seeds of discontent an answer appears

Suddenly, from the nebula of Internet diatribe emerged a solution to this communication dilemma. 2011 brought us #SorryNotSorry, and marked the beginning of the end to our obligatory and dare I say, twitch-inducing, exchanges. Rapidly becoming viral, the hashtag quickly took the social media space by storm – with Instagram, Twitter and Facebook quickly spreading the movement.

The concept of the non-apology has origins dating as far back as Ancient Greece, with the case of Socrates who – recognising charges of corruption against him – never admitted fault in his actions. The concept of the non-apology didn’t quite seem to catch on in Socrates’ time (he was eventually executed), but modern times have begun to embrace the playful and sarcastic iteration of faux apologies. Whether in hashtag form or voiced in conversation, the concept of ‘sorry, I’m not sorry’, has opened the lines of communicative transparency. No more do people feel judged for shedding their rigid sorry-saying forms and embracing direct and authentic dialogue.


Some of us say sorry…but some don’t

Across the world various cultures perceive the importance of apologies in differing ways. In Britain, studies show the average person will say ‘sorry’ 1.9 million times in their life. Questionably, these individuals only actually mean it about a third of the time, reinforcing the problem of when to take ‘sorry’, seriously.

Studies have revealed not only are those of particular cultures beholden to the repentant spinal reflex, but women in particular are as well.  Arguably, the root of womens’ inherent blameworthiness began many moons ago on parchment, with the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve. It seems that ever since Eve mistakenly handed over a piece of fruit to Adam, societal construction has created notions of female inferiority. Maybe the story was created to deliberately position women as at fault, triggering a propensity to apologise echoing through the corridors of history. Or, maybe whoever wrote the story was fructose-intolerant and just really did not like the idea of eating apples.

Nonetheless, times have progressed and women are now working towards closing the gap of inequality.

But social patterns (much like Donald Trump’s comb over) are difficult to change, and research shows women still possess the trait to apologise at a much higher frequency than their male counterparts. This is predominantly due to women merely having a lower threshold than men in terms of what constitutes apology-worthy conduct, something known as the ‘Offence Threshold’ hypothesis. This issue was recently incorporated into Pantene’s “Shine Strong” campaign using the Not Sorry tagline, in which women are shown apologising in daily scenarios and encouraged to curb this behaviour.

So why is this behavioural inclination for women so problematic?

The Harvard Business Review recognized that the female propensity to be agreeable produced excessive apologetic recourse, resulting in the representation of women as less assertive and consequently downplaying their power. Furthermore, the findings established that due to these social dynamics, women are statistically less likely to be promoted at work and to be appointed as CEOs. Thus the over-use of apologies has really hindered effective communication, highlighting the pertinent repercussions for women in the business sphere.

Corporate confusion: To apologise or not to apologise?

So, is the solution to limit the use of apologies by both women and men in the business world? Maybe. John Wayne states: “Never apologize…it’s a sign of weakness”. To be fair, he had a safe advantage – frequently toting a gun and being atop a horse if things went awry, but it seems like he might’ve been onto something.

When someone in a position of power is overly apologetic, it’s frequently deemed as a sign of weakness or a loss of assertiveness, a problem intensified in management situations. Studies have shown that the act of apologising creates the fear of loss of power and status within the individual, and can also influence others’ perception of the apologiser.

The advantages to being that stone cold fox is further corroborated by the fact that people who don’t apologise actually feel better than those who do. Even if an apology is in order, if you’re unable to show your genuine remorse then it may be better to say nothing at all. The effect of a disingenuous or half-arsed apology can have damaging consequences to business relationships.

Corporations and public individuals have provided ample evidence as to why bad apologies are akin to swallowing a flesh-eating virus.

Exhibit A: Lance Armstrong

Who could forget when the world-class athlete denied doping rumours, denied again, and then got rather adamant on a high horse somewhere in never-never land, before denying the rumours once again. In his eventual apology, the many justifications for his violations could do no more than underscore the forced PR attempts to salvage his image.

Exhibit B: Bill Clinton

The US President’s famous denial of not having “sexual relations with that woman” were etched onto the media’s printing press for years to come. The allegations once proven true resulted in the eventual admittance of fault in his behaviour, but failed to qualify his previous denial. The overall result was not so much an apology as a ‘damnit, I was caught’.

not interested in caring about people

When you have to bite the bullet and say sorry

In some situations, there is no other recourse other than to take a deep breath and apologize. If it’s done properly, this doesn’t necessarily result in reducing individual power or marring a reputation in the business setting. Important tips for a successful apology centre around strategic clarity in content of communication, with three vital steps.

  1. Keep the apology simple. Go straight to the main point. Consider the viewpoint of the other person and be clear about your error, and simply apologize for this. Less is more.
  2. Be genuine with what you say. Don’t go on a spiel about how this person is so important to you and you’re devastated to have hurt them. Only say what you are sincerely sorry for – cut the fake tears, and don’t add on extra waffle (unless you’re offering them actual waffles, that’s always a plus).
  3. Re-affirm your intent for a productive solution. Don’t make excuses for the culpable behavior. Apologize, then state how you will attempt to avoid such a situation arising again.

lily robin

Oh I’m sorry, where was I? Probably still trying to deep-fry those Oreos.

Life gets messy. Jackson Pollock painting messy. Which means that at some point in your business and personal relationships, you will screw up, and have to apologise to someone.

The main thing to be mindful of is when and how you apologise. Saying sorry involuntarily when an action is trivial or when you’re being forced to do so undermines the integrity of apologising. Don’t just “do what they told ya”. Rage Against the Machine had some pretty valid reasons against that, and so do I.

There’s nothing worse than getting a heartless and tossed out apology from someone. Another big no-no is giving someone a conditional apology. It’s not a sincere apology when you tie an excuse to it. Saying “I’m sorry you’re upset” is about as reasonable as Mike Tyson saying, “Hey Holyfield, I’m sorry your ear got in the way of my mouth and I felt peckish”. Silence is better than a dishonest apology. In the end you’re not only deceiving them (if you can manage to fake it), but you’re deceiving yourself. Don’t discount the real intent of an apology. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

If you can’t give that genuine apology and you really aren’t sorry, then take a leaf out of one of the best pages of 21st century parlance and refer to the non-apology.

That’s my take on it. Now, if you think I’m downplaying the significance and necessity of the apology, then I could tell you I’m sorry. Mea Culpa. My bad. But, if I’m being totally honest…#SorryNotSorry.

Header image credit: LifeHacker

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