Apology: Remorse or Maneuver?

A mediation client recently phoned after a session and politely but firmly accused me of favoring a plan put forward by his wife, displaying a bias, not the neutrality I’d promised.

Although I thought his perception wrong, I knew I had likely contributed to this misunderstanding, so I simply apologized. That seemed to clear the air, and we were then able to listen to each others’ view of what had taken place. Defensiveness fell away, for both of us.

But it could have gone quite differently, for I almost mindlessly, and defensively, responded to him by saying: I‘m sorry you see it that way.

I didn’t do so because of my heightened awareness of other expressions of regret gone awry: a celebrity, a politician or a radio talk show host places foot squarely in mouth and indicts an ethnic group or gender, with evil or foolish intent, and when once again sober or contrite, with great apparent sincerity apologizes by saying: If my words resulted in discomfort or pain, I‘m very sorry.

Responsibility for the incident is thereby shifted away from the speaker and to the listener, who is presumed to be overly sensitive. Not really an apology at all.

Working with people who have hurt each other in egregious ways and decided to divorce, I don’t often hear an apology spoken. When the decision has been made to part, and anxiety about the future is high, perhaps this is not surprising. Yet, I regret this constraint, for expressions of remorse that take responsibility for acts or omissions, can be so healing and open the door to understanding.

Even under less stressful circumstances, in secure times, some can say they are sorry with ease, perhaps even be too apologetic, when for others, the words of regret remain unspoken.

The different ways each of us convey ideas or express feelings is dependent to some extent on ethnicity, nationality or a special dynamic in our family of origin. These are disparities that too often go unrecognized.

The apology also presents an important gender distinction.

Here’s an interesting insight from Debra Tannen, a linguist, author and professor at Georgetown University. She’s written a number of books pointing out the differences between the communication style of most men and women, differences which she observed even in nursery school age children at play. She notes how willing women often are to apologize when things have not worked out well. I’ve noticed that myself, and assumed it simply grew out of women’s greater ability to express feelings, and the reluctance of many men to display emotion. But, according to Tannen, there is more to it than that.

Tannen observes that women tend to focus more on the question: is this conversation bringing us closer or pushing us further apart? Men, on the other hand tend to focus more on the question: is this conversation putting me in a one-up or one-down position?

For women, she concludes, apologies are to be embraced because they reinforce connections, but many men are attuned to the symbolic power of an apology to advertise defeat.

I find this to be a meaningful distinction, although, to be applied fully recognizing that generalizations don’t always fit.