Three golden rules to remember when making an apology

  • Seema Goswami, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Aug 01, 2015 17:14 IST

I have never been a great fan of either Taylor Swift or Nicki Minaj. But even so, it was hard not to get drawn into their ‘Twitter feud’ given that it more or less ‘broke the Internet’ (kids these days, I tell ya!). by not getting a VMA award for Anaconda, Minaj tweeted about how "If your video celebrates women with very thin bodies, you will be nominated for vid[eo] of the year", adding later, "Black women influence pop culture so much but are rarely awarded for it." Swift thought this was an attack on her and responded angrily (on Twitter, where else?). Other celebrities weighed in on either side of the debate. Columns were duly penned standing up for either Swift or Minaj. So far, so normal.

But where the narrative veered off-track is in how the contretemps ended. A day or so later, Swift sent out a tweet: "I thought I was being called out. I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke. I’m sorry, Nicki." Minutes later, Nicki tweeted back, festooning her reply with little red heart emojis, "That means so much Taylor, thank you".

A misunderstanding. An exchange of barbs. A quick, heartfelt apology, quickly accepted with grace and affection. Don’t you wish it always went like this? But the sad truth is that it hardly ever does – both in real life and on the Internet. And that is because the art of apology is the hardest ever to master.

Let’s take a quick look at Swift’s Twitter apology, a master of the genre. She began by explaining how she felt (“I thought I was being called out”). She went on accept how she went wrong (“I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke”). And she ended with two simple words: “I'm sorry.”

There was no attempt to dissemble or fudge, to evade responsibility, to lay blame on someone else, or to do that whole mealy-mouthed thing which involves ‘regret’ rather than an apology. Or even do that non-apology apology that always drives me up the wall and goes along the lines of: “I didn't do anything wrong. But if you think I did, well then I am sorry.”

Instead, Taylor Swift accepted that she got it horribly wrong and said a straight-up sorry. And because there is nothing quite so disarming as a heartfelt apology, Nicki Minaj accepted it with equal grace. End of story.

If only all fights – both in the real and virtual world –ended this way. But alas, they seldom do. And that’s because we seem to have lost the ability to apologise with sincerity and humility.

Instead, when we err, our first instinct is to dig our heels in and defend the indefensible. We insist that we were right all along and the other person is just a big baby who refuses to see reason. If that doesn’t work, we fall back on detailing the many instances where the other person has hurt us, implying that he can’t complain when he has been equally guilty in the past. When that fails too, then we try that age-old trick called escalation: calling the entire relationship into question just so that we can draw attention away from the one incident which we need to apologise for.

As the song goes, sorry does seem to be the hardest word. But if you are going to say it, then the least you can do is say it right (and, of course, mean it –though that is not always mandatory!).

So, here are the three golden rules to remember when making an apology
1. An apology should never include the word ‘but’ (as in: “I am sorry but you started this” or “But you do this all the time and I never complain”). If you have done something wrong, if you have hurt someone, or even angered them, then it doesn’t matter what went before (or what comes after). You need to say sorry, no ifs and buts allowed.

2. An apology should never be conditional (as in: “If my words pained you then I am sorry that you are hurt”). This implies that it is actually the other person’s fault for being so damn hypersensitive in the first place. And that you are so high-minded that you are apologising to make them feel better, even though it is quite clear that you are not at fault.

3. Once you have apologised/been apologised to and the apology has been accepted, treat the matter as closed. Don’t bring up the subject again and again, especially when you are feeling aggrieved about something else entirely. Don’t use the apology to make the other person feel small, either in private or in public. Turn the page. Close the chapter. And move on.

From HT Brunch, August 2
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