Apologising | Saying Sorry

See also: Communication in Difficult Situations

As Elton John sang, sorry (often) seems to be the hardest word.

As a society, we are extremely bad at saying sorry, or apologising. Or rather, we are extremely bad at saying sorry and really meaning it. In recent years, ‘saying sorry’ has proliferated, but in a form that has been dubbed the ‘nonpology’, or non-apology apology.

We heard many nonpologies from Hollywood stars round about the time of #MeToo, although they are also common from politicians. They include statements like ‘I’m sorry you felt that way’, and ‘I’m sorry if you were offended’.

Why is this a problem? Because it says: ‘It’s not me, it’s you’. In other words, it blames the person who has been offended or hurt for taking offence—and takes no responsibility. This page explains how to apologise acceptably and authentically, in a way that enables everyone to move on.

What is Apologising?

In ancient philosophy, an apology was a defence or a vindication of an idea. Now, however, its meaning is slightly different (see box).


apology, n. an explanation with expression of regret; a regretful acknowledgement of a fault.

apologise, v. to express regret for a fault.

Source: Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition.

Put simply, apologising is saying sorry—and meaning it.

This sounds simple, and indeed it is simple. Why, then, after receiving an apology, are we so often left feeling worse than before? The answer lies in how the apology is made, and also what goes with it.

A good apology can rebuild relationships and enable people to get on with their lives. It is, therefore, worth exploring what it means, and how a good apology can be made.

How to Apologise

It may be easiest to start with what a bad apology looks like.

These have become so prevalent in recent years that they have earned their own name, nonpology (see box).

More definitions

nonpology, n. a statement that has the form of an apology, but does not express the expected contrition, an insincere apology

Source: en.Wiktionary.org

nonpology, n. an insincere apology or expression of regret, often blaming the aggrieved party for being offended or bringing up an irrelevant topic to distract.

Source: UrbanDictionary.com

Nonpologies are also known as fauxpologies and back-handed apologies.

Bad apologies often leave the recipient angry and hurt. They do nothing to heal wounds. Some of the main characteristics of bad apologies are:

  • They are not genuine.

    We know when someone is not being genuine. We can read it in their body language, tone of voice and face. We see this a lot with politicians: they have been told to apologise, so they’re going to say sorry in public, but they don’t really see why they should, or even what they did wrong. A non-genuine apology is also apparent when nothing changes: the person apologising does not see that they need to change their behaviour, or take any action to put things right.

  • They blame the other person

    We often hear people saying, “I’m sorry you felt like that” or (worse) “I wouldn’t have done it if you hadn’t done…”. These put the blame for the actions on the person who is hurt. They say: “It’s not me, it’s you who are the problem”. Victim-blaming has been around for many years, and this may be a minor example of it in the broader scheme of things. However, it is hurtful when you are on the receiving end, and it also means that the person apologising is trying to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.

  • They place conditions on the other person

    A bad apology requires the other person to do or accept something in response. In other words, the person apologising will only do so if certain conditions are met.

    “I’m sorry I did it, but you must admit that you provoked me.”

    This is another form of victim-blaming, and again helps the person apologising to avoid taking responsibility.

A good apology, on the other hand:

  • Is genuine. The person making the apology must genuinely be sorry for their actions, and the effect that they had. They must also be prepared to take action to put things right, even if that is hard. You cannot fake this. If you are not genuinely sorry, don’t try to apologise.
  • Acknowledges the actions that left someone hurt or offended—and why they are hurt. For example:

    “I understand that you were hurt when I called you a bad parent. I know that your children mean everything to you.”

  • Accepts the blame and does not try to place any on the recipient. There may well be fault on both sides. However, a good apology does not try to allocate blame. Instead, the person making the apology accepts the blame for their actions.

    “I am sorry that I behaved that way, and that it had that effect on you.”

  • Does not place any conditions on the recipient. It does not need or require the recipient to do anything. A genuine apology recognises that forgiveness may follow—but it does not require it.

What Happens Next

There is often a question about what happens after an apology. The answer is: it depends.

It is up to the recipient of the apology what they do next. They might accept the apology and move on. They might accept the apology but still feel angry.

Perhaps the main point here is that for the person apologising, it doesn’t matter.

They have apologised, and now it is out of their control. They now have to move on—making changes if necessary to ensure that this does not happen again—regardless of the reaction of the person to whom they have apologised.

Receiving an Apology

It is worth briefly considering what to do when you receive an apology.

We are talking here, of course, about a genuine apology, not a nonpology—because those deserve to be called out and highlighted as inauthentic. They do not deserve the courtesy of genuine consideration, because they are not genuinely made.

However, when you receive a genuine apology, it is polite to thank the person making the apology.

After that, it is up to you.

You can accept it if you want to do so. You can also forgive—if you want to. Neither are compulsory.

However, it may be better for your mental health if you can move on, and not hold onto a grudge. You may never be able to forget completely, but moving on is healthier.

There are two things worth mentioning here.

  1. If you have received a genuine apology, but are still angry, there may be something else going on.

    It is perfectly reasonable to remain angry when you receive a nonpology. It is not genuine, and so it does nothing to help you move on. However, if you have received a genuine apology, and you can see that the person concerned is taking action to change their behaviour, then it may be worth looking inside yourself to see why you are still angry. You may need some professional help to sort this out, because it could be a sign of depression or trauma.

  2. It may take you a while to process an apology—and that’s OK.

    You don’t have to accept an apology or decide what to do about it immediately. You can take as much time as you need to process it—even if that is years. This is your prerogative. However, it may be worth seeking professional help if you find that you are really struggling to process your emotions after an apology. Again, it could be a sign of underlying issues, and it is worth sorting that out.

The Hardest Word?

Sorry doesn’t have to be the hardest word—as long as you mean it. A genuine apology, truly meant, and backed by actions, is extremely powerful for both the person making it, and the person receiving it. Do not underestimate its strength.