Why we need more apologies

By Caitlin Kelly


Time doesn’t heal all wounds. A sincere apology is a lot better!


Years ago, I had a job that was, to put it plainly, a brutal experience — alternating between being bullied and ignored by bosses and colleagues alike. It was at a Big American Newspaper, one now half its size, but then a very big deal and a well-paid job in a dying industry.

But I wasn’t about to quit, no matter how terrible it was to survive.

Then, years after I left, I met one of those former bosses again in another situation, and was quite nervous about how he might behave.

To my shock — and gratitude — he apologized if he’d made things worse for me.

How rare it is to receive an apology!

Here’s a great piece on the subject from Elle magazine, which I found thanks to this blog:

I have never spoken this phrase. To anyone. Not a lover, not a friend. Not a bad boss or a vindictive colleague. This is not for lack of opportunity. I’m a black woman in America. I have been owed plenty of apologies.

I just never believed I deserved to demand one.

In the instant that I watched Serena’s firm command, I anxiously searched my consciousness to determine why, in my 33 years of living, I had never demanded an apology I believed I was owed. I have certainly expressed personal and professional grievances; I have given voice to hurt feelings and frustrated moments with greater intention as I’ve grown in confidence—a confidence which is hard earned.

But the idea that someone would need to affirm responsibility for their actions and impact on me had just never occurred to me. I have quietly carried the scars of apologies desired but never received, seething with resentment but never questioning why I didn’t demand an apology in the first place. I have always known, as seemingly all Black mothers say, that “closed mouths don’t get fed,” and that it is rare that anyone receives that which they do not ask for. Still, I had not formed my lips to utter the words: you owe me an apology.

How many times in your life have you just sat there, seething, when we should have demanded an immediate apology for someone else’s shitty behavior?

Most recently, I sat beside a woman at someone’s landmark birthday party (hardly the time for a confrontation!) who scared the hell out of me about the upcoming radiation for my DCIS.

I was a bit shell-shocked by her attitude (she’s a naturopath); we’re often slow and deeply reluctant to demand an apology since we don’t want to make a scene in public (oh, how bullies count on this!) and react like deer in the headlights, inwardly appalled, but passive and stunned in the moment.


Too stunned to say “Excuse me?!!!”


Not to mention all the powerful people, usually male, who set and enforce the rules. It’s damn near impossible to “demand” anything when your survival depends on shutting up and putting up with appalling behavior.

There’s a lot of Internet conversation right now about the many men — shunned for harassing women sexually at work — now crawling back demanding our forgiveness and more of our attention, like Canadian former broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, American comedian Louis C.K. .and American broadcaster John Hockenberry.

I don’t really care for excuses, like “I don’t remember” because, unfortunately, I can’t forget some of the worst moments from my own life.

You can wait a long time, maybe forever, for some people to apologize, but it doesn’t mean giving other miscreants a pass just because it’s become your default.


Here’s a recent piece from The Atlantic about having a high school friend-turned-would-be-rapist eventually apologize:


A few minutes later, I saw him coming back; it was the boy who’d tried to rape me. He had tears in his eyes, and he seemed almost overwrought. And right there—in the A&S department store in the Smith Haven Mall—he apologized profusely.

“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I kept saying to him. “I forgive you, don’t worry.” It was a weird ambush of intense guilt and apology, and it was the wrong place and time—but the thing was, I really did forgive him. My life had moved on, and things were better. It felt good to get the apology and—as it always does—even better to forgive him. He’d done a terrible thing, but he’d done what he could to make it right.


Have you ever demanded an apology?

Did you receive it?

Was it sincere?

19 thoughts on “Why we need more apologies

  1. Yes. We have completely cut off a very close family member because of a long series of events. I felt like I had been giving this person second chances for years because they are a relative. I have never heard this person say “I’m sorry” to anyone ever. The last straw for me was when she offered my wife prescription opioid pain killers, calling them her happy pills. Pills that she had stolen from the person she rents from. All this in front of our teenage children. I wasn’t there but when I heard about it I was furious. She chose to “apologize” to me in an email. I quote: “For these times my words and actions were misconstrued or misunderstood please accept my humblest apologies”. Bringing drugs to my house and offering them to my family is a misunderstanding? Misconstrued? Talk about lack of sincerity! This was back in May and it still makes me so angry thinking about it.

  2. Ursula

    Maybe it’s just semantics/choice of words – but you can’t “demand” an apology. You can hope for one – in the name of justice, ethics, morals, decency. The whole point of someone apologizing to you (or you to them) is sincerity. Do they/you actually feel contrite or is it an exercise in going through the motions to keep the peace?

    I know people who apologize all the time. One might call it a nervous habit; apologizing for their very existence. I know people who feel genuinely sorry for a misdemeanour but are not capable of putting it into words or making good by other means. I know people who feel so entitled that, when caught out, they’ll point the finger at the “injured” party.

    As usual you touch on an interesting subject. I am a loyal reader of your many and varied posts. The reason I haven’t commented for a long while because we didn’t hit it off initially – you giving me my marching orders in no uncertain terms. For which I do NOT apologize. Neither should you. Sometimes we just have to cast our minds back to chemistry lessons back at school. Some combos work, some don’t. Some go up in smoke or lie as flat as either a pancake or Belgium’s landscape. And, back in the kitchen (a chemist’s lab if ever there was one), we need to learn that a good dough needs time to rest and prove.

    For obvious reasons, and I am truly sorry to hear you being held to ransom by your health, you recently have become more angry than usual. Before I am misunderstood: Anger is good, a useful force as it has potential to propel us forward. I wish you well.

    Keep simmering. Affectionately,

    PS Should you ever cast off any of your cashmere or other luxuries, I am only a continent away

    1. Canadians are socialized to apologize a lot — and I grew up in a family where I was routinely made a scapegoat. It made me apologize a lot, mostly for daring to exist and have needs. Not any more.

      It’s also a time, living in the U.S. certainly, when so many women are absolutely incendiary with rage — the treatment we are subjected to, professionally, financially, politically, is simply disgusting.

      so my anger is not merely personal (and this is but a tiny taste of it, titrated for public consumption) but much larger than that. I prefer, generally, not to rage in blog posts — as the world is already awash in anger.

      But women, (and many men) deserve sincere and deep apologies for so many abuses — the Brooklyn Catholic diocese just paid a record $27 million to four men abused by local priests.

      It never ever ever stops.

  3. I have learned not to ask for apologies- they usually are not sincere. Because I was raised by a narcissist, I was always apologising, often for things I had nothing to do with or had no control over. I apologised just for being there. Then I went through a phase where I expected to be blamed and just wanted to get the apology part over with. I’m careful with them now – they have to be real.

  4. I’m with Lynette here. If I demand an apology, the best I can generally expect is something like “I’m sorry. There, now get off my ass.”

    Most people I have known have no idea how to go about making a proper apology. “I’m sorry you didn’t understand” is not an apology. “I’m sorry I didn’t try harder to make myself understood” is a little more like it.

    I don’t apologize, ever, if I don’t mean it. All that does is devalue any sincere apologies I might make. This means I won’t apologize for my race, my gender or my ancestry, because they are not me and whatever they may have done is on them as individuals. If anything, those individuals who choose to simplify their thinking by stereotyping people should apologize to those they stereotype for their laziness.

    1. I have apologized many times — and meant it. There are surely times I haven’t that I should.

      But if someone feels sufficiently wounded to say — Hey! That really hurt me or offended me — that’s a fair statement.

      1. Sorry to take so long to respond but I really wanted to take some time to think about this. I’ve been hurt and offended, deeply and often, but it is very seldom a short trip to get there. There are questions to ask: Should I be offended? How offended? What do I actually know about the person who is offering this offense? Will taking offense be of any benefit to me or anyone else? All fair questions.

        I am a Southern man, directly descended from a soldier in the Confederate Army, a corporal in the infantry. I honor his courage and devotion to duty, the credit he brings to my name. I bear this sentiment for all soldiers. There are those who will say my feelings paint me as a white supremacist and a racist because they have seen everything they want to know. Do these takers of offense know that I support the right of football players to kneel when the national anthem is played, and not just their right, but their cause? How much of a racist does that make me? Maybe I should go out and raise some Hell about that. I won’t because this person plainly doesn’t know me and, if they ever do, I feel certain their opinion of me will be different. Unless, of course I am unwilling to forgive this and let it go. Which brings me to this: How good does an apology have to be before there is forgiveness? Is my eye worth as much as yours or does the offended party get to decide when it’s enough? We don’t just need more apologies, we need more forgiveness.
        Thank you, THANK YOU, for writing this post. Agree or not, I always feel like I will be treated with respect here.

  5. Susan Dunphy

    My thoughts on apologies, for better or worse. I’m not sure I ever demanded an apology from anyone in my life; perhaps I should have. I don’t expect apologies-if someone apologizes, that’s great, but I won’t give up my life to waiting for someone to apologize. I’ve had with the ‘fake’ apologies (I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings, etc.); I’d almost prefer you didn’t say anything at all. I try to say “I’m sorry,” when it’s appropriate. People have a hard time apologizing because they don’t feel accountable to other people and because they feel apologizing puts them in a one-down position. I do think the world would run better if we knew when and how to apologize appropriately, but I’m not holding my breath.

    1. So true.

      It’s tough to keep moving through the world when you know there are some BIG ass apologies owed to you…and you will never hear them, even if you asked for one.

      It’s about self-reflection and accountability…and no one is very good at that, it seems.

      So I just keep trying to connect with good people and to be a decent person and hope for the best.

      1. Susan Dunphy

        That’s all we can do-keep trying to be the best person we can be. We all need to make the best of what we have. To use an old cliché, “Keep on keeping on.”

  6. such an interesting topic. i’ve always struggled with expecting or hoping for apologies, but have hesitated to ask for them, lest they be insincere. that being said, many people struggle with the ability to even know how to apologize. not an excuse, but i think some people just don’t have that naturally in their toolbox. with the kinders, when something happens to hurt someone in any way, we have the person who caused it, to first as the other, ‘are you okay?’ either way, yes or no, they then ask, ‘how can i help or make it better?. when they answer, they make it happen. instead of just saying a forced, ‘i’m sorry’ with an ‘it’s okay’ answer, we teach them that ‘i’m sorry,’ does not mean it’s okay, but that it will never happen again, now that they understand how it has hurt someone. learning early and practicing how to do this, with a low level of consequence, is a good way for a child to begin to understand and practice, expressing their hurt, their remorse, and their empathy, while helping the other to feel better.

      1. absolutely. that’s why they have to understand that ‘i’m sorry’ is only accepted if it means it will not happen again. i’m sorry it happened this time.

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