Not all apologies are created equal. Even though the benefits are often immediate, it's hard for humans to admit when we're in the wrong and simultaneously make ourselves vulnerable to others — so as a result, we often fail at apologizing well. But the one word not to use when apologizing to someone could be something many of us could learn from if, next time, we need a little bit of help with our technique. (And let's face it: Most of us probably do.)
As noted this week by Jane E. Brody in the New York Times, according to psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of the new book Why Won't You Apologize?, the secret to a good apology is often just as simple as not including the word "but." This one little word can negate the impact of a genuine apology, so the next time you have to grovel, leaving it out of your phrasing might result in faster social harmony.
What's the rationale? According to Lerner via Brody, tacking a "but" onto an apology "counters the sincerity of the original message" — that is, when you try to offer a justification for whatever behavior you're apologizing for, it makes your apology come across as insincere. Furthermore, as Brody notes, an apology also isn't the same thing as a request for forgiveness — and, indeed, requesting forgiveness shouldn't be included in an apology at all. "The offended party may accept a sincere apology but still be unready to forgive the transgression," wrote Brody.
This rings true, of course — you can easily talk your way out of perfectly good apology by back-pedaling and trying to save face, but on the other hand, there will be situations where the hurt party probably won't accept an apology simply because of the presence of the word "but."
And best of all, you can combine this strategy with other science-backed methods to make for the best and most effective apologies. Some experts argue, for example, that you should wait until immediate emotions settle before offering up an apology; others, meanwhile, state that for an apology to have meaning, you also need to offer up proactive solutions to avoid future disasters — for example, "I'm sorry I washed your cat without asking; next time I'll make sure I check in with you about it first."
A comprehensive study from Ohio State University conducted in 2016 argued that a good apology really requires going the extra mile. The researchers found that there are six key components which increase the effectiveness of an apology: An expression of regret, an description of what went wrong, an acknowledgement of responsibility, a declaration of repentance, and requests for forgiveness and repair. So, depending on the situation, an apology might require a little more than avoiding one word to be truly effective.
And when it comes to examining how to accept an apology, Science Of Us notes that interestingly, Lerner advises against forgiving for the sake of it, as the process isn't as binary as many people think. "The forgiveness experts were collapsing the messy complexity of human emotions into simplistic dichotomous equations, like you either forgive the wrongdoer or you’re a prisoner of your own anger and hate," she wrote according to Science of Us. "Either you forgive, or your life will be mired down in corrosive emotions and you’ll never move forward." In reality, though, things are rarely this cut-and-dried.
And as to why so many of us are inept at saying sorry well, Lerner reckons it's in our biology to protect ourselves: "Humans are hard-wired for defensiveness. It's very difficult to take direct unequivocal responsibility for our hurtful actions," she said. "It takes a great deal of maturity to put a relationship or another person before our need to be right.”
So even though apologizing doesn't come naturally to most of us, at least it's something we can all learn, right?