New research shows that, sometimes, an apology shouldn’t be your first line of defense
You may be sorry you read this.
A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology reveals that saying sorry when intentionally rejecting someone could actually backfire, and get on their nerves. So that means that if you, say, breakup with someone or cancel long-help plans with them and apologize for doing it, that could actually infuriate them even more.
“Our research finds that despite their good intentions, people are going about [saying sorry] the wrong way,” says study author Dr. Gili Freedman of Dartmouth College — at least in situations where they did something on purpose to the person. “They often apologize, but that makes people feel worse and that they have to forgive the rejector before they are ready.”
Apologizing for an intentional act can leave the person on the receiving end feeling more aggravated, by making them feel like they have to accept the apology prematurely, the research finds. One possible explanation for this is that we’re often reticent about showing hurt feelings, so receiving an apology from someone else can inject emotion into an already painful conversation, to which we react negatively.
So how do you apologize the right way if you do something intentionally to someone — without saying sorry? Connecticut etiquette expert Karen Thomas says that you should be respectful, stay calm, and inject a note of positivity into the dialogue. “Try to spin it positively with a comment that alludes to the fact that it’s not a bad thing… State a reason, [but] don’t lie,” Thomas says.
And if they respond disagreeably? “The best way to approach that is to empathize with them — rather than get angry or attack, say something like: “I can understand you being upset; however, this situation is out of my control and I have to go forward.”
That’s just one of the many ways you can diffuse a negative situation. Here are a few others:
1. Be sincere: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” Thomas adds. “The sincerity and the tone of your voice have a lot to do with the person accepting the apology.” Looking people in the eye, using a clear tone of voice, and slowing down your speech can all contribute to an atmosphere of authenticity.
And your actions have to show that you really mean you’re sorry. University of Central Florida student Brooke Stadler, 20, says that apologies can come off as disingenuous if they’re used too frequently.”My old roommate always left her dirty dishes piled up in the sink on the weekends when she would go home,” Stadler recalls. “In the beginning, when she’d say sorry, it made me kind of hopeful that maybe she would fix her actions, but after a couple of times it made me feel less about her as a person,” Stadler adds. “How are you ‘so apologetic,’ but end up repeating the same thing over and over again, when you know it bothers someone else?”
2. Have a valid excuse: “If you’re not offering any explanation,” for your offending action, that could cause irritation, Thomas says. Rather than rejecting someone and tossing on a “sorry,” for good measure, Thomas advises that explaining the logic behind your behavior could reframe your action in a better light. “If I was telling a roommate that I couldn’t renew my lease with them, I’d say, ‘I have to move out, but it’s because my parents need me at home,'” she offers as an example.
3. Choose your timing wisely: “[In a situation like] moving out on your roommate, timing is everything — if you have noticed you’ve been planning to talk to your roommate and she comes home from work… This might not be the time to lay that bad news on them, so you need to gauge,” Thomas recommends.
Jacqueline Whitmore, founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach, says that if you’ve done something unintentional that’s worthy of an apology, it’s best not to wait too long. “Timing is everything,” Whitmore says — so feel out the right moment, and strike while the iron is hot.
4. Is the apology necessary? All three — Stadler, Thomas, and Whitmore — agree that saying “sorry” isn’t always the right remedy.
For instance, in Stadler’s case, she says she would have rather her roommate be honest about her chronic messiness, and explain that it would be tough for her to do dishes on weekends, instead of perpetuating the problem by repeating the “sorry” mantra and doing nothing about it.
Sometimes “you don’t need to say I’m sorry; you could just have a candid conversation,” Whitmore suggests. “If you’re going to say I’m sorry, say it once and keep moving. As a society, we often have a tendency to over-apologize. It’s always, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ and you don’t have to do that.”
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