The Art of Apologizing

CC by Maddie Photography
CC by Maddie Photography

Transferable skills: we list them in student employee job descriptions, recruiting brochures, and performance evaluations. We provide student staff training on communication skills, leadership skills, interpersonal skills, teamwork, etc., all of which are important transferable skills for students to develop, no matter what career they choose. But there seems to be one skill that is critically important for students to learn, but that is rarely addressed in classes or staff training: the art of apologizing.

During this semester, we conducted disciplinary meetings with some of our recreation center employees, as well as a few of our student users. In all cases, the students knew in advance why they were required to meet with us. Though the incidents that brought about the meetings were similar, the responses varied dramatically among the students, which afterwards affected my feelings towards the offenders. I began to wonder whether perhaps some students don’t realize the impact that an apology can make on others.

As children, our parents, or some other adult, first taught us about apologizing. We would take our baby sister’s toy away, or punch our brother in the face, and afterwards we would be forced to tell that person “I’m sorry.” Though the apology wasn’t always heartfelt, it was a good first step in helping us to see how our actions can affect others. As we grew up, we began to recognize when our actions were hurtful or offensive, and saying “I’m sorry” was more often self-initiated and heartfelt.

In adulthood, we usually have a well-developed sense of right and wrong, along with the necessary tools to make appropriate decisions, but mistakes are still inevitable. And some of those mistakes, intentional or accidental, require an apology. However, I’m not sure that some young adults (or older ones for that matter) have learned how to evaluate a situation where they may have offended another person, and then to make a proper apology. And a proper apology could make a big difference in the way a person’s friends, boss, or significant other thinks about them. It could also help young people to grow and mature.

During the disciplinary meetings this semester, when confronted with their mistakes, some students responded with a begrudging “I’m sorry,” accompanied by either an eye roll or no eye contact at all. Some would blatantly lie and offer no apology, while others would give excuses and act irritated that they were being confronted with their offense.

In contrast, other students made the following excellent apologies:

“Allowing my friend to use my ID card showed a lapse in judgment on my part. I apologize. I wasn’t raised that way, and it won’t happen again.”

“I’m sorry I did that. I take full responsibility. I knew that what I did was against the rules. I was just trying to be slick. It will never happen again.”

“I’m sorry I was late to work. I forgot that there was a football game and the extra traffic made it harder to find a parking place. I know that I let my other team members down by being late, and I’m really sorry for that. I will pay more attention to the schedule in the future. Thank you for meeting with me about this.”

After hearing the students’ responses, my reaction to the first group was to view them as deceptive and likely to be repeat offenders. I thought of them as immature, untrustworthy, and sneaky. However, I found myself viewing the second group as responsible adults who just made a mistake. I accepted their apologies as heartfelt and expected them to move on, putting their best foot forward. I realize that not every great apology is sincere, but I’d like to think that most of them are. And one thing is for certain: an eye roll definitely will not make me believe that you will try to do better.

I would like to believe that most students, rather than being intentionally belligerent when confronted with their mistakes, just haven’t been taught how to respond appropriately. It’s not that parents aren’t doing their jobs at home; it’s just that family dynamics are often different from interactions with friends and the general public, so there may not be an opportunity for parental input in all situations. And with all of the bad examples of public apologies that have been in the news, perhaps better information and good examples would be helpful.

How to Apologize” is an excellent article explaining the steps involved in making an apology. Below is a brief summary of these steps:

  1. Recognize that a person has been offended or harmed in some way
  2. Recognize your part in the situation
  3. Take responsibility for your part
  4. Apologize to the harmed party by identifying how your actions have adversely affected them, and expressing remorse for your actions
  5. Ask the harmed party for forgiveness
  6. Ask how you can atone for the offense

The ability to make a proper apology is not on anyone’s list of transferable skills, but it certainly is a thread that is contained in many, such as communication, leadership, and interpersonal skills. So my question is this: Should we be teaching our students how to make a proper apology? Is anyone already doing this during staff training or for introduction to college courses?