I started writing this essay last year after Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., yelled at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., on the steps of the Capitol. Two days later, on the House floor, he offered a disingenuous “apology” that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez declined to accept. For various reasons (see: global pandemic), I never finished my essay. Then, two weeks ago, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York addressed the sexual harassment accusations recently leveled against him by multiple women. His weak defense brought up the same feelings of disgust and weariness that I’ve felt countless times before when listening to people – public figures and those in my personal life – fail to deliver a sincere apology.

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In this image taken from video, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a March 3 news conference at which he publicly apologized for making potentially offensive comments but denied allegations about inappropriate touching. Office of the New York Governor via AP

I was once a nanny to an unruly little boy who had a hard time playing harmoniously with his peers. At many a play date, I had to lead him back to those against whom he’d transgressed and prod a mea culpa from him. Almost always, the other children were convinced of his contrition and welcomed him back into the fold. Like a magic balm, a believable “I’m sorry” was all it took to heal the wounds and redeem the offender.

As we age, this seemingly gets more difficult. Maybe it’s because our misdeeds become more destructive that they are harder to cop to. Maybe our egos are more fragile and admitting we’re wrong is perceived as an unacceptable weakness. Maybe it’s the vulnerability that’s too much for us; we fear we won’t receive forgiveness or we worry that an apology will not be sufficient, so we never make one. We appear to be more motivated to avoid consequences than to address our wrongdoings and repair the damage.

We see this again and again in cases of abuse and harassment. If the accused doesn’t deny the allegations outright, any apology offered usually sidesteps meaningful culpability. Some of the most familiar “Sorry not sorry” refrains sound like this:

• “I apologize if you were offended.” This is not an apology. Adding the “if” leaves room for the possibility that no real offense was committed, and the onus for the offense is on the other person. On the receiving end, this sounds like, “If offense even occurred, it’s on you.”

• “I’m sorry, but (insert excuse here).” Making excuses negates the apology. Period. It’s tempting to try to convince the wronged party of best intentions, woeful ignorance, accidental folly, but this can’t reverse the consequences, unintended or otherwise.

• “I apologize for X, but I won’t apologize for Y.” This is a good indicator that the offender hasn’t learned from the experience and will likely transgress again in a similar fashion. You may have heard this as “… but I won’t apologize for being who I am!” or, as from Mr. Yoho, “… but I cannot apologize for my passion, or for loving my God, my family and my country.” Commence eye-rolling.

Apologizing the right way is very simple, yet it requires a measure of grace and restraint. As someone who has given and received both good and bad apologies, here’s my formula for an apology that’s worthwhile:

• Acknowledgment of the action or behavior that necessitated the apology: This ensures both parties agree on the issue and demonstrates that some reflection has taken place.

• Unequivocal apology: No ifs or buts, just an earnest “I’m sorry.”

• What will happen going forward: While it’s important not to make false promises, the wronged party usually wants to feel that a lesson has been learned. If the goal is to heal and move on, it can be helpful to discuss conditions for making amends, mitigating the damage or preventing further harm.

Obviously, there’s no one-size-fits-all, but the result could be as pure and simple as “I understand that when I did (that thing), I hurt you.” “I’m sorry.” “I will not do that again.”

Finally, a critical piece to remember: No matter how flawless and genuine an apology is, the receiver is under no obligation to accept it, and the apologizer is not automatically entitled to forgiveness. This does not mean it isn’t a worthwhile endeavor. Normalizing the practice of making sincere, no-strings-attached apologies can only help us to build a more decent and empathetic society.


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