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An apology is an expression of regret for having committed a wrong against another.


Motivation and impact of apologizing

Apologizing, according to Aaron Lazare, author of On Apology, can be motivated by strong internal feelings such as empathy for another or the distress of guilt and shame. In such cases, the person issuing the apology seeks to restore and maintain his own self-esteem.

Other motivating factors are external. One may, for instance, want to affect other people's perceptions, perhaps to induce forgiveness. People who don't apologize often say they don't do so because they fear the reactions of the people to whom they apologize, or they are embarrassed and ashamed of the image they would have of themselves as weak, incompetent, or in the wrong.

Lazare points out the healing benefit of the apology to both parties, the harmed and the one causing the harm. The apology fulfills several possible psychological needs for the offended party. Among them are: restoration of self-respect and dignity; a sense of connection and shared values with the other person; a sense of safety in the relationship; assurance that the offense was not his fault; and sometimes the sense that the offender is suffering from the harm.

The results for the person issuing the apology can be more dramatic. The apology often restores the person's self-esteem and dignity, allows him the opportunity to make reparations, and reconnects him with the other person.

The term apology is sometimes inaccurately used to describe all expressions of sympathy or regret. A greeting card that bears the message "I'm sorry for your loss," for instance, expresses condolences but not an apology.

Famous apologies for past wrongs

In recent years, apologies have been made for past actions (or inaction) to a variety of groups. [1]

In June 2009, the US Senate apologized for slavery, 150 years after the end of the US Civil War. [2] Likewise, the Southern Baptist Convention drew up a Resolution On Racial Reconciliation asking for forgiveness for past actions and for any residual racism.

The Roman Catholic Church, in the 1998 "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" , acknowledged the passiveness of many of its adherents during the Nazi Holocaust. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America apologized for the strong anti-Jewish statements made by Martin Luther and the effects his legacy had on later generations. [3]

Indigenous populations
The United Methodist Church apologized for the brutality of a lay preacher and Civil War hero Colonel John M. Chivington who led the massacre at Sand Creek, killing more than 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho.[4]

Abused children
Pope John Paul II apologized for the paedophilia of U.S. priests as one of the nearly 100 apologies made during his pontificate on behalf of the Catholic Church [5]. In the same vein, Pope Benedict XVI apologized in 2008 for the Australian victims of paedophile priests. [6]

Apologies and legal advice

Lawyers traditionally advise their clients not to apologize, fearing that an apology would lead to an admission of guilt and that the client would become liable for damages. They may believe they are saving their clients from liability, but anecdotal evidence and recent research suggest they are wrong. A seven-year study at the Lexington, Kentucky Veteran Affairs hospital, which practices a "come clean" policy, showed that their average settlement was $16,000 versus the national VA average of $98,000.

An apology for wrongdoing can reduce the potential for litigation and liability and also help maintain or restore public trust. Refusing to admit wrongdoing may cause greater problems than the wrongdoing itself.

Apologies in action

Data arising from empirical research suggests that an apology can actually prevent further repercussions.

Health care providers
Kathryn Johnson, a registered nurse and the director of risk management at the University of North Carolina's health care system, argues that apologizing to patients for things that go wrong in their care or the care of relatives is not just the right thing, but the right thing for business. In Essentials of Physician Practice Management, she identifies studies that show that litigation by patients was reduced when providers were forthcoming about mistakes they'd made and took responsibility for them, especially smaller mistakes. Patients whose caregivers communicate with them honestly and consistently are more likely to feel that their providers act in good faith, are more forgiving of their human errors, and are less likely to want to punish them with lawsuits.

Lawnmower manufacturing
According to the National Law Journal, lawnmower manufacturer Toro responds to a product-related accident by having a product integrity specialist - not a lawyer - contact the injured party, express the company's condolences, and initiate an investigation to discover the cause of the accident. An engineer goes with the product integrity specialist to look at the equipment that caused the injury, and where appropriate the company takes steps to improve the equipment to prevent future injuries. In two-thirds of the cases, the product integrity specialist resolved the matter without legal intervention; almost all of the remaining cases are resolved in mediation.


Additional resources


Author: J Kim Wright