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The courage to apologise
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I'm reading
The courage to apologise
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I'm reading
The courage to apologise
Pass it on
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Articles
16 July 2019

The courage to apologise

Why a heartfelt apology is anything but a sign of weakness

Written by Hugh Mackay

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

“Never explain, never apologise” is a line often, though wrongly, attributed to Henry Ford. What he actually said, after being convicted on a drink-driving charge, was “never complain, never explain” (which was itself a quote from British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli). But “never explain, never apologise” has lodged in our folklore—helped by being famously delivered by John Wayne in the 1949 movie, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, followed by the very significant (and stupid) words: “it’s a sign of weakness.”

A sign of weakness? How can it be weak to admit I’m wrong or to acknowledge that my behaviour has hurt or offended someone? How can it be weak to offer someone the therapeutic gift of an apology? On the contrary, to apologise sincerely is to demonstrate that I am secure enough in my sense of self to admit I was wrong and that I am willing to repair whatever damage— emotional or otherwise—I have caused.

To withhold an apology when we know we have erred in some way is a sign not only of breathtaking arrogance but also of insecurity. It’s as if we are afraid that admitting fault is tantamount to admitting weakness when, in fact, weakness—frailty, inadequacy, foolishness—is part of being human!

Put yourself in the place of the person you have wronged or offended by some action or words that might have been careless and unintentional, or deliberately damaging. Either way, the damage is done. Now what? What does the person you have hurt most want from you? An apology, obviously. And why is that so important? If you accept, as I do, that the desire to be taken seriously is the most fundamental of all our social desires, then the answer is obvious: an apology signals that we are taking the other person seriously.

Conversely, the withholding of an apology says, without needing to put it into words, that I don’t take you seriously enough to bother apologising to you. And that compounds both the offence and the hurt.

So why would so many people be drawn to the idea that apologising is a sign of weakness? Why do some people make it a matter of principle never to apologise? The answer is simple: apologising requires a double measure of virtue: one part humility, one part courage.

It requires humility because an apology not only implies an admission of weakness or failure on our part, but it is also an act between equals. You can’t apologise sincerely from your high horse! A boss apologising to an employee is exactly the same kind of encounter as an employee apologising to a boss. And so is an “official” institutional apology—for example, an apology by a government or a church or a bank or other corporation to victims of that institution’s negligence, criminality or arrogance. An apology administered from “on high” is no apology at all: humility is an essential part of the deal.

Like so many aspects of personal relationships—such as listening and forgiving—apologising also demands some courage from us. Why courage? Because when we apologise, we are exposing and admitting our own frailty and inadequacy. As I’ve already suggested, that’s really nothing more than a declaration that we belong to the human race, but it’s a stretch for many of us (including many of our political leaders) to actually admit we’ve made a mistake.

Of course, having offered the other person the therapeutic experience of being apologised to, we now crave the correspondingly therapeutic experience of being forgiven. But that’s another story. An apology that is conditional on receiving forgiveness is no apology at all.

An airy, easy Oh, sorry is also no apology at all. What is required of us is that we find the courage to face our failing, admit our error, apologise sincerely, demonstrate that we understand the hurt we have inflicted on the other person, and ask for their forgiveness. Anything less is hollow.

Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and the author of 19 books–12 in the field of social psychology and ethics, and 7 novels.

hughmackay.net.au

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