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How to Apologize Correctly According to Science, Since so Many People Mess It Up

Ooh! Ooh! Is step 1, "Be sorry"?

sad dog

We here at The Mary Sue have talked about apologies a fair amount, mostly because some people are spectacularly bad at making them. Although, to be fair, people making “I’m sorry you’re sorry” apologies probably aren’t actually sorry and are communicating their feelings fairly accurately—their feelings just aren’t very constructive. To help the less apologetically inclined, we now have some science to turn to. (Our preferred method for any problem.)

This isn’t entirely a new area of research, and a paper published Tuesday in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research tested the efficacy of six previously identified apology elements to see what worked best: expressing regret, explaining what caused the error, accepting responsibility, explicitly repenting, a suggestion of a way to make up for the damage, and a request to be forgiven. Predictably, they found that apologies with more of these elements carried more weight, but they also noted that some of the parts were more important than others, which is where a lot of people go wrong in choosing which ones to include.

What they found to be the most important was acknowledging responsibility. If you think about it, you’ll probably notice that the most hollow apologies you hear may omit that entirely, instead opting to rely on the explanation of what went wrong—or, worse, a justification of what went wrong disguised as explanation—maybe some regret, and a desire to be forgiven. It’s possible that someone who realizes the weight of their actions could be reluctant to take responsibility because they just feel that bad and can’t believe they actually did whatever landed them in trouble in the first place, but in the end, there’s just no way to give an authentic apology without it.

LiveScience reports that Roy Lewicki, lead author on the study, said, “Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake,” and that the second most important element identified was suggesting a way to repair the damage. Equally telling is what came in dead last: the request for forgiveness. Again, it’s easy to see why; forgiveness is what the offending person wants, when the apology should be about the person who was hurt. Really, if whoever’s apologizing cares more about getting some forgiveness than making things right for the other person, they’re only sorry for themselves.

Really, most of us know these things intuitively, but it’s nice to have a handy, scientific rubric to keep things perfectly clear.

(via LiveScience, image via Long Quan Pham Tuong on Flickr)

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Dan is a video game modding hobbyist and secret ninja who lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa Brown, and his dog, Liz Lemon, both of whom are the best.