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Apology and the Seven Dirty Words

Half the world seems to be demanding an apology from the other half. But if you’re going to apologize, you may as well get it right. It’s not easy. There are seven dirty words that are guaranteed to derail any apology. Avoid these seven apology busters and your apology has a much better chance of being accepted.

1. If

As in “I certainly apologize if I offended anyone” or “I’m sorry if you considered my remarks offensive.” The word “if” is the nastiest qualifier in any apology. By making the apology contingent, the apologizer says the offense may or may not have happened at all. Even if the offense did happen, it has more to do with the sensibilities of the victim than the responsibility of the apologizer. This is infuriating for the victim, for whom the offense is very real.

2. But

As in, I am very sorry, but you started it,” or “I apologize, but I thought you wouldn’t mind.” The word “but” is almost always guaranteed to botch an apology. The goal is to deflect some of the responsibility of the offense from ourselves. Guess who’s the lucky beneficiary of the responsibility the offender is so generously willing to share?

3. May

As in “I am sorry my remarks may have been misinterpreted” or “It’s possible I may have said something offensive.” Using the word “may” as a conditional in an apology is another way to distance yourself from accountability. The use of “may” serves to turn very a real offense into a mere hypothetical.

4. Were or Was

As in the passive “I’m sorry you were hit” or “It’s too bad that your reputation was damaged” when what you mean is “I’m sorry I hit you” or “I apologize for damaging your reputation. The passive voice is another way of avoiding responsibility when you have done something you don’t want to accept responsibility for. The classic formulation: “mistakes were made.”

5. Know

As in “I know just how you feel” or “You know I’d never want to offend you.” Pretending you know how the victim feels comes out of the same arrogance as the original offense. If you go in with the attitude that you know how the victim feels, all you’re going to do is enrage him or her.

6. Intention

As in, “It was never my intention to let it go so far” or “I never intended to hurt you.” One of the hardest lessons for apologizers to learn is that the first thing victims care about is consequences, not intentions.

7. Want

As in “I want to apologize to you.” “I want to apologize” may sound like an apology, but is no more about actually apologizing than “I want to lose weight” is about actually losing weight. It’s good to want to apologize; it’s better to actually do it.

Using these seven dirty words in an apology often compounds the offense by suggesting that the offender didn’t really do it, or if he did, it wasn’t that bad, or the victim was morally clueless and it had it coming in the bargain. An apology is effective when the offender recognizes the offense, takes responsibility, expresses remorse, offers restitution, and promises not to do it again. When you’ve taken full ownership of your responsibility, when you don’t trail your apology with excuses or mitigators like so many brooms behind an elephant—then you have truly apologized.

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