Saturday, April 26, 2014


So, my girlfriend posted this on her FB feed earlier:

(Note: I only mention that she posted it for context; it's not especially relevant for the rest of this.)

I take some issue with the sentiment here. I don't entirely disagree, but my initial reaction is "hmph," and I thought it might be worth unpacking that a little bit. So here we go.

I have a weird, long, and somewhat complicated relationship with apologies. Some of it may be cultural; my wife is from Oklahoma, and doesn't see quite the same need to say "I'm sorry" to act as a sort of gateway to successful communication. But I don't really know how to brain the cultural aspects, so for me personally:

1) I grew up in a household in which "Matt is selfish and egocentric" was a fucking meme. I mean, I'm not saying it was never true (hands up if you've never done anything selfish). I'm not even saying that it wasn't a problem at points. But I am saying the meme long outlasted its applicability and became something that I actually take direct offense to, and I'll get shouty and unpleasant when family members try and apply it these days. The point is, I think, that there was often the assumption that I should apologize, but wouldn't, if that makes any sense. And the truth of the matter is that I've always wanted the people around me to be happy, but I never really knew how to get there. Is it possible that I occasionally played to the perception of egocentrism because I knew that laughing about it seemed to make my family happy? Maybe, seems possible.

2) I actually have done some really unpleasant and mean things to people I loved, and I've given some pretty heartfelt, painful apologies for it. Compared to that, saying "I'm sorry" because I said something offhandedly that was interpreted wrong seems kind of trite. Now, to be clear, I'm not saying that as a way to minimize anyone else's experience, just to unpack my own.

3) I give people benefit of the doubt all the damn time. I actively try to live a philosophy that places my perspective not as unimportant, but not as especially important, either. My perspective is just mine, other people have reasons for doing what they do and in the spirit of honest communication, I owe it to them to try and understand it, etc. As such, if someone says or does something that I find offensive, either personally or on a larger level, I don't necessarily require an apology. That seems weirdly egotistical and personal to me. The point of the exercise isn't to assuage my feelings, it's to enable communication and, hopefully, educate so as to avoid future problems.

By getting hung up on the formality of the apology, it seems to me that, one way or another, someone's ego is getting massaged. Refusing to give an apology serves the ego of the would-be apologizer, refusing to proceed without one serves the ego of the apologizee.

For my own part, I don't want an apology unless it's genuine. I don't want someone to say the words unless they really understand what's happening, which is why I think the apology serves better coming at the end of a discussion. And frankly, "I'm sorry" doesn't help me anyway, because I want people to be happy and for them to understand me. I don't want you to be sorry. I want you to get it. "I understand why you were hurt" is sometimes used as a cop-out to avoid a "real" apology, but I think it's what I'd rather hear.