The power of apology

By Caitlin Kelly



“I’m sorry.”

Two simple words — but impossible for some people to say.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the power of an apology, and its limitations.

As I head into the home stretch of the fall semester teaching college, a mix of freshmen and seniors, it’s been interesting dealing with a few students whose behaviors, whether selfish, short-sighted or just plain rude, seemed an obvious prelude to their prompt, sincere apology.


One keeps wandering into our class late, apparently mistaking it for a 24-hour diner, something she can graze at will; only by informing her I would lock the classroom to the tardy did she get my point to arrive early or on time.

Another took a week to express regret for an outburst in class, after I emailed him and made clear how deeply offended I was.

Who raises these people?

But apologies are merely the opening statement, as some people are skilled at offering pretty, apparently sincere “sorry!” sound like something they actually mean.

Until they do the same thing again. And again. And again.

An apology worth its weight is one followed by the words: “It won’t happen again” — and the active proof of same. As a writer, I earn my living through words, but words impress me little. Action is what counts.

An apology also requires, even demands, the listener’s forgiveness, which itself requires their trust, relying on the very bond that’s been broken by bad behavior, whether the offender’s rudeness, insubordination, incompetence, forgetfulness, abuse, infidelity…

And some people can find offense in the mildest of statements, misreading tone or language as an insult when none was meant, plunging you into an abyss of faux repentance just to keep the peace.

I grew up around people who offered plenty of reasons to apologize for their behavior, but rarely did.

Apologizing isn’t easy, but it’s an essential skill, both personally and professionally. I’m fortunate enough to have been forgiven by most of those to whom I’ve apologized, and grateful when they have.

We all screw up. It’s what happens next that determines the outcome.

Have you ever refused to offer an apology?

Have you ever wanted one that never came?

27 thoughts on “The power of apology

  1. A couple of years ago I got an apology about twelve years late, but other than that there are apologies I’ve been waiting years for and haven’t received yet. But I try to let go of the hurt and anger. I’m not likely to get those apologies any time soon, so why keep expecting them and get angry over them? Otherwise you just become resentful of the world and keep accumulating hurts both real and non-existent until you snap and do something crazy. I don’t want to be that person.

  2. I was contacted by someone I’ve not spoken to for many years, just recently (shocked the hell out of me). An apology was sent my way for prior actions that led to this silence, but I suspect, sadly, that it’s just that – words. Talk is cheap is worth little without action.

    It’s always struck me as interesting, how saying what you mean and meaning what you say, is one of the hardest lessons to learn. This applying to apologies, compliments, feedback etc. Massive confusion of ego. I would hope most of us learn how to do so at some point or the other, but who knows!

    (Catching up with your posts after a long hiatus)

  3. i have never refused to offer an apology and i have waited forever for some apologies to come that never have. i accept that they never will and move on, though i still wish they would.

  4. Dear Caitlin,

    I apologize for the second message that I sent you the other day regarding the Jimmy Carter video. Beth Kaplan and I (by the way, that’s how I found your blog – your link is on Beth’s blog as one of her favourites) were both blown away by Carter’s words and I guess I just got over-enthusiastic and wanted everyone to have the same reaction. That happens to me sometimes.

    Like many of your posts, this one that you’ve just written is indeed thought-provoking. In fact, reading it made me think the following – an apology also requires recognition or acknowledgement (on the part of the person who caused the offense) of having done something wrong. And believe it or not, a lot of people aren’t cognizant of the fault/harm/transgression they have committed. I don’t know why this is. Are they deluded or in denial or what?

    They might eventually say “sorry”, but you have the clear impression that there’s absolutely no sincerity or comprehension behind it. I guess it’s up to the injured party to spell it out. I speak from personal experience after waiting 16 years to hear an apology from my sister. She finally said so (in an email) – we still don’t speak – but it was so empty that she might as well have not even said it.

    Anyway, I hope we can get together for a hot chocolate when you’re in Paris! We could meet at the Café Flore, for example, or some other place in the Marais. The Christmas lights are spectacular in Paris in December.

    In fact, I’m still working on my memoir and might require your professional services. I need an experienced eye to read some of my pages.

    Look forward to hearing from you. Cheers, Juliet

    1. No worries…If I ever find a spare minute, I’d like to see it. Life right now is pretty chaotic.

      We’ll email closer to our date; we arrive Dec. 20…

      So true about fake apologies. I have a half-brother who refuses to speak to me (now going on seven years) and it will make for a lovely moment when we (and 2 other half-sibs) have to face my father’s death/burial/estate.

  5. I spent a lifetime waiting for and wanting apologies. What I have learned is that has only robbed me of a lifetime. I kept the wounds open so I would be ready when my time came to get my justice. What that gave me was a lifetime of open wounds. The best I can figure is to give what you would hope for. I apologize, but only when I mean it. I too am a disliker of the empty apology. Our society not only accepts it promotes the empty apology. What a tragedy. Other people and what they do are not within our control. Sadly, the only that this is under our control is our reaction and how long we choose to hold on to it. What they do, really is not about us. We just happen to be there. We can choose to walk away. I still would like the apology but I will be happy whether I get it or not. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I like your thinking, Rhonda. It’s true. Why should we allow someone else’s reprehensible conduct ruin our own lives? The problem, though (because we are human) is that it affects us. I did choose to walk away from my sister who tried (with her husband) to rob me of my inheritance after our mother died. It was a grab-fest. I had to hire lawyers, pay a lot of money and take her to court, etc. The horror of it all. If my parent’s knew they’d roll over in their graves. Unfortunately, in the process I lost a niece. She was 5 years old when I left and today she’s 21. We are total strangers to one another. I view this as just another consequence of my sister’s destructive nature. I can’t forgive her.

      1. It’s very difficult…I anticipate/dread a similar shitshow when my father dies, with 4 children, all adults: one hates me, one is perpetually absent and one I have never even met. Fun ahead!

  6. Several years ago I took an intensive executive leadership course. About halfway through the week, one of the top leadership instructors from Queens University said to us “Now I’m going to teach you the single most important thing you need to know to be a true leader.” And he proceeded to spend the better part of an hour teaching us how to apologize.

    1. That’s amazing….and how fortunate you were to learn that.

      I wish more managers, and businesspeople, got it. I screwed up very badly once (more than once, but this was a biggie) and I apologized sincerely to the person who was taking heat for it internally and above me. I was very lucky she was willing to forgive me…I suspect many people just pretend they didn’t mess up or that it hasn’t hurt someone else, even when we know full well that it has.

  7. A sincere apology can make miracles happen; an insincere one is worse than none at all.

    I’m the Queen of sincere (and often unnecessary) apologies. I’ll apologize just to smooth things over whether whatever happened was my fault or not. I want things calm that much!

    And, oh yes, I’ve waited for apologies that never came…so I offered them just to end the stalemate. Not a good strategy for my self-esteem, but, for the moment, the sacrifice seemed worth it. In the long-run, however, the price was too steep. I had to get away from people too arrogant to admit when they were wrong. And I had to build up enough self-respect to stop assuming the blame for everything that did go wrong. Humility is a wonderful quality–being a door mat is not!

    1. It’s a very difficult thing to be around (family, work) people who never apologize and yet who have been rude and/or hurtful; some turn it into our dramas instead of just owning it.

      I’m not that big on calm, esp. false calm. But you knew that! 🙂

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  9. Another conundrum–when someone does apologize but continues to do something again and again. “I’m sorry” loses it’s effectiveness when said so often. I don’t think an “I’m sorry” requires forgiveness. It’s nice if you can give it. And sometimes you can forgive, but not forget–or vice versa.

  10. Although words are sometimes seen as the cheap, easy option, even an insincere apology can help ease strained family relations. My father died this summer. There is now no possibility of him apologising for anything done or said. My parents separated acrimoniously several years ago, but somehow never quite got around to getting divorced. There is a lot of unresolved anxiety and tension between my mother and his mother, my grandmother because nothing was ever finalised about my parents’ relationship and nobody had achieved closure. The funeral planning (done by me, mum and grandma) was an exercise in aggrieved toe stomping, irreverent thoughts and a lot of prideful sulking. My sister also wasn’t speaking to my father when he died and as he had been living with my grandmother, she is now having to decide whether to attempt to apologise for not coming to her own father’s funeral. Frankly, I am not sure whether it will be worth her effort as I doubt any apology will be accepted at this stage, however sincere. Also, the venue for this hypothetical apology would be my home during the holiday season. If my sister shows up (unlikely, but possible), I anticipate a no-holds-barred row. As family peacemaker, I find myself in the awkward position of trying to broker unofficial peace treaties between people who have been on opposite sides of a deep rift for years. The whole thing is a total mess. A handful of nice cheap words from my father, however insincere, might have given me something to work with.

    1. Ouch!

      This makes me feel (sadly) a little better about the appalling state of affairs between me and my half-siblings. It’s exhausting and overwhelming having to deal with the reality of your father’s death, let alone all this ongoing drama.

      My father has tried to broker a peace between me and the half-brother who hates me for seven years. No go. It’s essentially ridiculous to nurse a grudge so assidously but people do.

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