I have been a person who says “I’m sorry” a lot. Recently, I have noticed apologizing when I’ve done nothing wrong — someone bumped into my chair, for example. In the culture of the United States, this is considered a bad quality, particularly for a man: “I’m sorry” suggests I’m taking responsibility for a wrong, or lack confidence to take up space. Women in the United States are often reinforced to apologize for taking up space of inconveniencing others, culturally reinforced to make themselves physically small and unobtrusive. In some cultures, a person would be considered arrogant and boorish for failing to apologize and take others into consideration. We do lose an element of civility and mutual regard when we fail to take any notice of having inconvenienced or hurt someone. A friend once suggested substituting “excuse me” for times when I want to say “I’m sorry.” This may be a small gesture of politeness, but mutual civility is fed by such small gestures.
The complexity of gender, space, and consideration is brilliantly illustrated by the tumblr Men Taking Up Too Much Space On The Train. Image after image reveals what appear to be masculine or male-bodied individuals taking up more space on public transit than is necessary, at times crowding out others. Apologies and self-minimization is met by those who take up more space than is necessary, who seem unconcerned by their impact on others. These folks either think they have no reason to apologize or think that to apologize is to show weakness. The problem, to their minds, is that others are too sensitive or did not recognize what the offender really “meant” to do. The people taking up too much space on the train might not mean to inconvenience others, for example, but they are.
We see public figures causing harm or offense with their words and actions and then going through a fake ritual of conciliation. They say something to the effect of “I’m sorry you’re mad at me” and sign up for a sensitivity course. They say, “I was misunderstood or taken out of context.” They seem unaware of the harm done, they’ve taken no time to contemplate. The apology is about smoothing over image.
Apologizing does not have to mean, “I was completely wrong and you were completely right.” An apology accepts responsibility for a specific harm I have done. I may still be struggling to understand your hurt or offense, but I can listen to and appreciate that I have caused harm. I can recognize how I contributed to the situation, what I did that was not in line with my values. You may have done something that I feel justifiably angry about, and I can recognize that my behavior was not honorable.
When I become aware of having caused offense, the first thing I need to do is stop whatever it is I am doing or saying. Stop accusing others, attacking, or defending myself. Stop avoiding that feeling of embarrassment, shame, or awkwardness.
The next step is reflection. This can take seconds or weeks, asking myself: what have I been doing? What are others telling me is the consequence of my actions? Do I understand or do I need to ask for more clarification? How do I feel about what I’ve done? How do I feel about the consequences of what I’ve done? What harm can I name that came from my actions?
Then I consider an apology. What specifically do I regret? To whom do I need to apologize? (Hint: the person you have harmed, unless you would be legally or ethically prevented from doing so.)
If I can apologize, I might take it a step further with some action that attempts to bring justice to the situation. This might be offering restitution for the harm done. This might be making a symbolic gesture of my intention to right the wrong. The important thing to remember is that I am doing this to correct the wrong, not because I need or expect validation. An apology does not automatically correct the wrong or fix other peoples’ feelings.
Here is a qualm I have with “asking for forgiveness,” unless we are really clear that we can only “ask.” If I am apologizing, it is to get back in integrity with myself, to accept both my harms and my potential for healing, to recognize the person I want to be and get back to becoming that person. None of this depends upon the forgiveness of the offended person, which is a gift that is freely given or withheld. Attempting to coerce, guilt, flatter, or shame forgiveness out of a person is to compound the hurt and undermine the apology.
In this post, I have distinguished from apologizing as a social grace and apologizing to rectify and heal a harm done. Though the two are not identical, they overlap in our gendered and cultural expectations of how one is to behave and how considerate one is of other people. Whether you take up too much space or shrink as small as you possibly can, a heartfelt apology can be a way of returning to your true size.