Three and a half years ago, I got cheated on. I moved past it. I’ve since realized that it was a bad relationship that destroyed my self confidence. I am so happy with the way everything turned out, and am actually grateful that it happened. I was meant for better things. Of course, those feelings subsided when I received an e-mail from the “Cheated With” recently. Old wounds were opened and I felt sick, sad, broken, and alone all over again.
And it’s not because I’m angry; I haven’t been angry over what happened for years. It’s because every time this gets rehashed, I have never heard a single damn apology.
No one has just told me they’re sorry. No one has offered me any responsibility for any of their actions. I’ve gotten a lot of “It just happened,” “You should have known it was going on,” and even an “I wish I hadn’t told all those people you were a monster.” (No, for real. That was a thing.) But not one, “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
The e-mail I received was worded as an apology, but it was really more of an accusation. It hurt, realizing what had actually been happening and what had been said about me. It was not an apology. It was a selfish way for the other person to make herself feel better. And while I wanted to smash plates and drink wine, being productive is a much better use of all this confusion. (Of course, wine is an excellent band-aid. I heartily recommend wine.) So I would like to take this time to teach everyone the all-important lesson of how to say, “I’m sorry.”
SHOULD YOU SAY SORRY?
First, should you even say you’re sorry? If everything happened a long time ago, you should probably let bygones be bygones. After all, at this point, your actions are probably metaphorical water under the proverbial bridge. As someone pointed out to me, “Just because a wound is healed doesn’t mean the scar isn’t there, and if someone reopens the wound or points out the scar to make herself feel better, then she’s just being selfish.” Time may heal all wounds, but that doesn’t give you the right to poke at those wounds a little bit and see how stretchy the scar is.
Another thing to consider is whether you have a continuing relationship with that person. If you work together or have mutual friends, it is probably best that you apologize. However, if you are unlikely to ever see one another again, leave it be. There’s no tension there, and therefore that person probably doesn’t care if you ever apologize. If you never see one another, there’s no pain there to deal with. Let it go. Apologies are not ever about you or your feelings, they’re about repairing relationships and admitting to wrongdoings. If there is no relationship or nobody cares about your wrongdoings anymore, LET IT GO.
Finally, are you actually even sorry? Sure, there are times that you have to apologize for the sake of group dynamic or workplace environment, but for the most part, don’t apologize if you’re not sorry. If you honestly don’t believe you did anything wrong, don’t apologize. Other people can recognize sincerity, and if you’re not actually sorry, the other person will know and feel worse. Guaranteed.
HOW TO SAY “I’M SORRY”
Now that you’ve decided you should apologize, or probably shouldn’t, but are going to anyway, it’s time to discuss how to apologize.
First, the less said, the better. Any time you qualify an apology, you qualify the regret you feel. “I’m sorry I told everyone you were perpetually late and it’s really annoying, but you really should have just taken a cab,” is not an apology. It is a Bitch Move. It’s pretending to apologize while simultaneously making a power play. Apologies are not power plays. Apologies are about humbling yourself and saying you were wrong.
That’s not to say you can’t explain your actions. I recently offended a colleague in an entirely accidental manner. When she brought her concerns to me the next time I saw her, I explained that I was sorry, and it was my fault for being a goofball and not thinking before I spoke and that my intention was never to embarrass her. If there’s a rule here, it’s “and, not but.” Anytime you say “but” you’re making an excuse. There are no excuses in apologies, except to say, “excuse me.”
Second, know what you’re sorry for and say so. Are you sorry for throwing out your cubiclemate’s tuna and pretending it wasn’t you? Or are you sorry that you didn’t just tell your co-worker that you hate the smell of tuna and would appreciate it if she would eat her tuna in the lunchroom instead of at her desk? No substitutions!
Finally, don’t try to make yourself out to be a victim, too. Even if you feel you were also taken advantage of, that’s not the point of an apology. Later, after all hurt feelings have died down, you can open that discussion topic if and when it feels right. For now, just take responsibility for your own actions.
Apologies are an important realm of the etiquette world. If politeness is all about forging relationships, then saying you’re sorry is the key to repairing those relationships once they’ve been forged. And for next week, something a little less “wounded bird” and a lot more fun, I promise. (And a lady always keeps her promises.)
Got an etiquette question? I’ve got an etiquette answer. Leave it in the comments or email me at email@example.com.