How To Apologize Properly, According To Science
Have you ever really messed up and had to basically get on your knees while trying to apologize to someone? You're human (I hope), so the answer is probably "yep." In which case you already know that not all apologies are created equal; and now, science has isolated the specific elements of apologies that combine to make them most effective. The study, published last week by scientists from Ohio State University, involved a whopping 755 people taking two separate tests to determine what kinds of statements were most effective in apologies. The results showed that the biggest and boldest apology, the most effective "I'M SO VERY SORRY," involved six different components. Yep, six. You can't get away with just a "whoops" text if you're going to do this properly.
However, the scientists involved also made it clear that certain elements are more important than others. Psychologically, it turns out that we weigh different approaches to hurt and wrong with varying significance, and an effective apology needs to get the balance of elements right. This may explain why sometimes, you may be on the receiving end of an apology that feels like it should be completely effective, but still strikes you as curiously incomplete or inconsistent.
Here are the six elements that the study identified, in order, from least to most important; combine them in order to create the most effective apology on the planet. Get your groveling shoes on!
1. Expression Of Regret
Why It's Important: The idea of regret is the concept that, given the opportunity again, you wouldn't do the same thing, and that you personally understand the consequences of whatever Terrible Act you committed.
However, the expression of personal regret that you made a mistake or caused offense, the researchers said, is actually one of the less important components of an effective apology; it needs to be in there, but you don't need to labor the point.
What You Might Say: "I really wish I hadn't said what I did."
2. Explanation Of What Went Wrong
Why It's Important: This is another of the less important aspects of a complex apology, but it can be extremely helpful if context can give serious clarification for why you acted in an offensive or problematic way.
Explanations on their own can sometimes be seen as aggressive or attempts to dodge responsibility, rather than expressions of remorse, so it's important that you don't think an explanation is enough of an apology on its own — consider it one part of the meal, but hardly the main course.
What You Might Say: "I was angry at the world in general because I had missed out on the last chicken tenders, and took it out on you."
3. Acknowledgment Of Responsibility
Why It's Important: Taking on the personal burden of being wrong — rather than attempting to spread the blame, explain yourself, avoid the issue or focus on being forgiven — is one of the most mature methods of righting a wrong. This is also why the classic non-apology "I'm sorry that you feel that way" is the opposite of an acknowledgement of responsibility in an apology.
Weirdly, the study lists this element as third, but insists that it's absolutely the most necessary component of an effective apology.
What You Might Say: "This is my fault. I screwed up. I should never have thrown your uncle's linzer tart in the gutter."
4. Declaration Of Repentance
Why It's Important: Repentance is an interesting concept — it's not the same as just saying you're sorry or regretting things; it's an acute sense of self-reproach and remorse because of a particular act.
However, the word repentance also contains an inherent sense of change, to shift your life towards better things because of your feelings about your past performance. Basically, you're saying that you're generally ashamed of yourself and want to do better.
What You Might Say: "I feel terrible about insulting your biscuit-making skills."
5. Offer Of Repair
Why It's Important: These studies showed that this was the second most-valued component of an apology. Fundamentally, this makes good psychological sense. When a wrong has been committed, we're much more likely to warm to an apology that outlines that reasons it will never happen again, and the desire to actively participate in fixing any hurt that has been caused. Basically, a good apology has to mean being involved in a process, not just saying sorry and moving on as before.
What You Might Say: "I want to make this better; I promise that, starting now, I will no longer play Candy Crush over your shoulder while we're making out."
6. Request For Forgiveness
Why It's Important: Surprisingly, though culture has taught us to value the requesting and giving of forgiveness as the most important part of an apology, according to the study, it's not a very effective part of a really good one. This is likely because it's ultimately about the person who committed the act; they want absolution and the assurance that they haven't ruined things forever.
Forgiveness, in other words, is an important component of apology, but it's seen as less crucial than things like mending bridges and accepting adult responsibility for mucking stuff up. This is a considerable challenge to conventional ideas, but it's also worth remembering the next time you need to go say you're sorry; make the request that all is forgiven after you've done the work to repair the damage.
What You Might Say: "Please say you forgive me for that arrogant argument I started about Rey's mother in Star Wars: The Force Awakens at your dinner party."
Images: FG Trade/E+/Getty Images; Giphy