How to Apologize

You are responsible for how your actions affect other people. We are not perfect, and
sometimes we make mistakes. Therefore, there will be many times when we must
apologize. A poor apology will only make a bad situation worse, but a good apology will
defuse every bomb.

Hurt or angry people are not in a rational state, so trying to explain why the other person
should not feel hurt or angry will not be effective. You will also fail if you try to explain to
the other person why he/she ought not feel the way he/she feels.

Paradoxically, it is hardest to apologize to the people who are most important to us. I
think that is because an apology makes us vulnerable to rejection. To apologize is to
admit that we are not as perfect as we think we are, and we live in dread that our loved
ones will discover our imperfections and leave us.

Fear not. Re-read the second sentence of this section: We are not perfect, and
sometimes we make mistakes. Admitting our mistakes is how we learn to love
ourselves and to love other, equally imperfect humans. The cliché “To err is human; to
forgive divine” is often invoked when someone wants to avoid responsibility for their
mistakes. Don’t be that kind of person. Be the kind of person who seeks forgiveness so
you can know the divine.

A proper apology is direct, sincere and simple:

1) Apologize in person. If that’s not possible, handwrite a short note. Do not type the
apology. Do not send e-mail, do not buy an “I’m sorry” card, do not leave a voice
message on an answering machine.

2) Apologize with true regret. If you believe you did nothing wrong but someone has
been hurt by your actions, be sincerely regretful about the person’s pain. Ignore your
good intensions and focus on the unintended consequence.

3) Apologize with a simple message. This is not the time for fancy vocabulary or fancy
sentence structure. Get immediately to the point: a good opening is “I’m sorry . . .”
followed by a short description of what you’re sorry about, acknowledge the other person’
s feelings, and close with an offer to do whatever is needed to heal the pain you caused.

Here’s an example:

Your best friend, the one you’ve known since you both were 5 years old, has been
offended by a joke you made. Let’s say you repeat a joke you heard about the retarded
Senators in the US Senate and everyone at the party laughed. However, you find out later
in the evening that your friend discovered earlier that day that she is pregnant with a
Downs Syndrome baby and is offended by your use of the word “retarded.” You are
surprised at her reaction because you obviously didn’t mean to make fun of the mentally
challenged and you used “retarded” because that’s how the joke was told to you. You
want to tell your friend that she shouldn’t be so sensitive about an innocent remark that
everyone else has probably already forgotten. However, you value your friend and her
feelings. This is how you apologize:

The first chance you have, take your friend aside. You look her in the eyes and say: “I’m
sorry for the joke I made that has you upset. You’re my best friend and I don’t want you to
be angry with me. I hope you can forgive my lapse of good taste.”

Rude People

The biggest test of your manners comes when you are in the company of others who do
not observe the cultural norms you’re accustomed to. A well-mannered person will
ignore the errors of others and will maintain his/her composure no matter the challenge.

This is where my story of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Medicine will be most useful (see
Main Manners Page). If you’re in a short-term situation, like at a party or a wedding, keep
your judgments to yourself. You are a guest, and your job is to make the host/hostess’s
decision to invite you a wise one. Your job is to be friendly, gracious, and polite. You are
not there to proselytize for your culture. Smile and remember that you’ll soon be back in
familiar territory.

Giving Advice

Don’t. Never volunteer your opinion on anything unless you are asked. If you’re asked
directly for an opinion, be kind. Most people who ask your opinion are really seeking a
confirmation of their decisions. Unless you foresee danger or financial ruin, resist the
impulse to pontificate and encourage your friend that what he/she has decided is the
best course of action.

When to Say “Please” and “Thank you”

This is easy: always say “Please” and “Thank you.

This is especially important to say to the people closest to us. Being married does not
give you freedom to ignore your manners.

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(How to apologize and more)