Apologies, Part 1 – Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word


When is the last time you apologized to someone?  How did it go?

Recent stories in the press around “non-apologies”  (Ryan Lochte, Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte) brought to mind an experience I had with a student last year in which I apologized following a hallway conversation.

Apologizing is probably one of the most uncomfortable social experiences to have.  Admitting blame means being vulnerable and relinquishing control.  It risks the loss of a relationship.  While the authentic apology may smooth a bumpy situation, or even repair a broken relationship, there is no guarantee for such an outcome.

We are not typically taught how to offer apologies effectively, either.  Rather, we bump along most of the time, stumbling through them as best we can, hoping to make amends.  In childhood, we are frequently commanded to apologize, without fully appreciating its function in relationships.

They’re worth the effort.  I’ll share my recent experience and let you determine if my apology met some criteria for a sincere apology.  First, though, let’s examine the non-apology.

I’d suggest that the difference between the sincere apology and the non-apology lies in omitting one or both of the following phrases:  “if you” or “that you.”  You see where this is going.  John M. Grohol, founder of Psych Central, warns that the non-apology places the burden of the apology on the offended party, e.g. “I’m sorry if what I said upset you,” or “I’m sorry you took it the wrong way.”

Non-apologies also include vague language, with no reference to the offending behavior or things said.  Here are examples from the individuals referenced at the start of this essay.  In each, I try to isolate the core language for each explanation.

Ryan Lochte, in response to his anecdote regarding the gas station incident with fellow US team mates in Rio de Janeiro during the Olympic games, during which they vandalized a gas station restroom:  “I want to apologize for my behavior last week-end — for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of the at early morning and for my role in taking the focus away from the many athletes fulfilling their dreams of participating in the Olympics.”  Mr. Lochte does not say that he fabricated the initial story about being robbed at gunpoint.  He has paid a price, though,  in lost sponsorships, a ten-month ban from swimming competition, and the $100,00 bonus for his gold medal win in Rio.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has frequently railed against the “disgusting” American media and how they twist his message (“They will take words of mine out of context and spend a week obsessing over every single syllable.”).  In a recent and temporary pivot during a speech in Charlotte, North Carolina, offered the following non-apology:  “Sometimes in the heat of the debates and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing.  I have done that, and believe it or not I regret it.”  I’m not sure which statements he is referencing here.  Perhaps it was intended as a Mega Non-Apology, to atone for the  multitude of insults that have fallen from his lips in the last fifteen months.  The steady stream of offenses has left him largely unscathed.

Last week, during President Obama’s trade visit to Asia, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte insulted Obama with an epithet, not printable here,  during a rant in which he defended his anti-crime policies that have resulted in a spike in arrests and killings there.   The consequence:   President Obama’s cancellation of a planned meeting.  Duterte later offered a response, which he did not personally convey, but was read by one of his spokespersons.  Language in the statement referred to Duterte’s “… strong comments to a reporter that elicited concern and distress … We also regret it came across as a personal attack on the US president.”

Let’s turn to authentic apologies.  Dr. Gorhol suggests the following criteria:

-acknowledge what you did was wrong

-accept responsibility for your action

-make attempts to atone for the wrong you committed

-give assurances that the transgression will not happen again.

We don’t often see examples of authentic apologies in public, at least none that include all the above components.  I’d like to offer two examples here, which, ironically, come from the world of entertainment.   While they don’t include every criterion in Grohol’s list, they do provide a solid, sincere endeavor in reconciliation.

In the famous film “The Sound of Music,” Captain Von Trapp apologizes to Maria for his behavior toward her since her arrival to begin her work as a governess to his children:  “Fraulein … I behaved badly.  I apologize.”  He follows up by saying, “You were right.  I don’t know my children.”

In an episode from the last season of Downton Abbey,  Lady Grantham scolds Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, for borrowing her evening coat at the suggestion of Lady Mary, Lady Grantham’s daughter.  She says, “I’m surprised at you, Mrs. Hughes … leave me.  I have a head ache and I need to lie down.”  Mrs. Hughes is crushed.  In a subsequent scene, Lady Grantham visits Mrs. Hughes to apologize: “I won’t beat about the bush.  I hope you’ll accept my apology.  I behaved badly earlier.  I was not feeling well and I allowed it to cloud my judgment.  I had no excuse to behave as I did.  Please forgive me.”

What a superb example of an authentic apology.  Lady Grantham wastes no time in making it, and takes full responsibility for her behavior, even when Mrs. Hughes offers her own admission of not having requested direct permission to don the evening coat.  She maintains the focus of the apology on her own behavior, working to repair the lost connection.  Lady Grantham is an excellent model of how to offer a sincere apology.

Last spring I had a young woman in my course who was a quiet,  though very interested student.  She was pursuing early childhood studies and was also enrolled in the course that followed mine, in the same classroom.  About two thirds of the way into the semester, some of her assignments were still not not submitted, and she had already built a pattern of absenteeism.  The work she had turned in up to that point was quite good.  A shift emerged when she completed  an observation for which she earned a low grade.  She waited for me after class to inquire about it.  We entered the hallway, along with other students from the class who also had questions.

Hallway conversations with students can be rushed, and therefore, not fully productive.  This is not unusual when students have brief questions before their next class.  It is an imperfect situation.  Instructors’ office hours don’t always coincide with students’ time frame.

The student and I began speaking together, within earshot of her classmates.    She could not understand why she had earned such a low grade.  I offered specific examples about where the report had fallen short.  Upset, she said she thought she had done all that was required.  I then stated that it was clear to me she had not consulted  the directions on the assignment sheet.   Referring to her classmates standing nearby, she responded quietly, “There are people right here.”  I said I would be happy to set up an appointment to discuss the paper more fully and invited her to submit a revision.  She declined, saying she had to get to the next class.

Soon thereafter I realized she had dropped the course .  A week went by.  One morning, after my class was over, she entered the classroom to attend the class that followed mine.  I approached her and asked if we could speak privately — in the hallway where we’d had our last interaction.  I asked about her having dropped the class, and she alluded to my comment about the assignment.  I admitted that I had been thinking about the conversation and my realization that I embarrassed her in front of classmates.  I said I was unaware of how much my voice had carried and the tone and content of my words.  I apologized and asked her to consider re-enrolling in the class and setting up a plan for the remainder of the semester to complete her work.  I was straightforward on the reality of lost attendance points but said I believed she could still earn a strong grade if all the missing and future assignments were of high quality.   She enthusiastically agreed and we set new deadlines for the remaining weeks.  She thanked me.  I returned the thanks.  She re-enrolled in the course, missed no more classes, submitted a revision of the paper, and completed all the work.   We had a positive connection for the rest of the semester.  She earned a final grade of B.

Lesson:  apologies are intended to take responsibility for our own transgressions and the effect they have on someone else.  In my case, I could have asked questions before offering a sweeping opinion.  I also could have said much worse — I have certainly heard some whoppers in other instructors’ comments to students. While I worked to be sensitive, but honest,  in my interactions with students, I realize that I fell short at times — and this was one of those times.  It was uncomfortable, but it provided real practice in stepping out of the ego.  I don’t think my apology meets all the criteria on Grohol’s list.  It’s a start, perhaps.

Apologies are valuable.  They’re necessary.  The challenge may be in understanding when they ‘re merited and in having the guts to make them.


It’s sad, so sad                                                                                                                        It’s a sad sad situation                                                                                                       And it’s gettin’ more and more absurd                                                                      It’s sad, so sad … why can’t we talk it over                                                              Always seems to me                                                                                                          Sorry seems to be the hardest word.*

Elton John and Bernie Taupin, 1976





2 thoughts on “Apologies, Part 1 – Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”

  1. Thanks, Karen! More time equals a bit more pressure to write, ironically! We’ll tackle the other end of the apology spectrum in the next essay — over-apologizing. Good grief.

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