Volume 16 Number 1
What Makes for a Good Apology
01 February 2003

Aaron Lazare is Chancellor and Dean, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA, USA. The article is based on a lecture in Caux, Switzerland, in August 2002. Some of the material is taken from his forthcoming book on apology.

One of the most profound interactions of civilized people is the offering and acceptance of apologies. Some apologies have the power to heal and restore damaged relationships, avoid or undo vengeance and grudges, and diminish guilt and shame. Failing to apologize or offering faulty apologies may lead to strained or broken relationships, grudges, and even vengeance.

The importance of apologies in personal relationships has its parallel in national and international affairs. The dynamics of both are similar.

Apologies have grown in importance on the international scene since the early 1990s. This is a result of several converging forces: the millennium; Pope John Paul II's apostolic letter urging members of the Roman Catholic Church to confess the sins they committed over the last 2,000 years; the globalization of the world; new and emerging ethical beliefs that assign new sources of moral and social power to racial minorities, women, and previously oppressed people and nations; and the end of World War II and the Cold War.

Although apologies are common to most or all cultures, the language, style, and meaning of apologies vary. The essence of an apology in its simplest form is to acknowledge responsibility for a grievance followed by an expression of regret or remorse. A second meaning of apology in the English language is a justification or explanation.

People or nations want apologies to heal grievances committed against them, including: physical harm or threat of harm; loss, damage or threat to material goods; psychological harm; violations of rights or freedoms. Personal grievances are apt to cause the greatest distress.

People apologize for two major categories of reasons: response to their feelings of empathy, shame or guilt or, secondly, attempts to avoid abandonment, punishment, or retribution. International apologies are usually of the latter variety.

An apology can be non-verbal. When the Pope visited Yad Vashem, the memorial in Jerusalem to those who perished in the Holocaust, Karen Armstrong, a religious historian, said that this visit 'was a far more eloquent apology than any sermon or papal document'.

An apology can be brief, such as 'I am terribly sorry' or 'I am so shamefaced. Please forgive me.' But when the offence is significant between people, groups, or nations, one may only understand why an apology succeeds or fails by analyzing its four major components: the acknowledgement of the offence, the explanation, the expression of shame and remorse, and reparations. I call these four components the complete apology.

The most common failure of apologies, in my opinion, is the failure adequately to acknowledge the offence. This is a failure to be specific about the nature of the offence, to acknowledge precisely who is responsible for committing it, and to clarify that the moral contract has been violated.

In most apologies, the offended party wants an explanation for the behaviour of the offending party. We commonly hear the expression, 'You owe me an explanation'. The failure to provide an effective explanation is often perceived as a further insult.

In an effective explanation, the offending party may attempt to show that the offence was not intentional, not personal, or is unlikely to recur.

Expressing shame communicates that 'what I did does not represent the kind of person I am or the kind of nation we are'. Remorse communicates deep regret. If the victim does not perceive the party who is apologizing as remorseful, the apology may have little meaning.

Reparations refer to repairing or making amends for a grievance or wrong. They can restore the tangible loss or serve as symbols of repair. Usually the reparation restores the dignity or face of the offended party. Without reparations, apologies can be cheap talk.

Other dimensions of apologies that are related to their effectiveness are timing and the negotiated interaction between offender and offended. Apologies for serious offences need time and cannot be dealt with immediately following the offence. There are often negotiations between both parties as to the timing of the apology, the specificity of the offence, the nature of the explanation, the degree of remorse and the amount of reparations. The outcome of the negotiation depends upon what the offender is willing to offer and what the offended is willing to accept. It is the negotiated aspect of the apology that renders each apology a unique communication.

An apology heals because:

1) It allows the offending party to maintain and repair the relationship.

2) It allows the offending party to validate the offence.

3) It allows the offending party to re-establish the moral code or social contract with the offended party.

4) It forces the offending party to suffer for what he has done.

5) It allows the offending party to acknowledge shame and remorse.

6) It allows the offending party to show the offence was not personal and will not happen again.

7) It allows the offending party to acknowledge there is a debt to be paid.
8) It allows the offending party to give the victim the power to forgive or not to forgive.

9) It allows the offending party to restore the dignity of the other at the cost of dignity of him- or herself.

Because of all these things, an effective apology is an act of honesty, an act of humility, an act of commitment, an act of generosity, and an act of courage.
Aaron Lazare