A the age of eight, my mom taught me something very important about apologies. Riding in our Dodge Caravan, my brother and I were roughhousing, and I got hurt. She made him apologize to me, but I said nothing back.
To Accept or Not to Accept an Apology?
“Kelsey, what do you say?” my mom insisted. What am I supposed to say? I don’t accept his apology!
I mustered an “it’s okay.” She said, “It’s not okay!” She explained that when what the person did was a bag thing, you can let them know that you appreciate that they acknowledge that they hurt you, and you can tell them how it made you feel. Simply saying “it’s okay” leaves a lot to be said.
Of course, as you get older there’s more to the art of the apology. Is the apology sincere? Does the person regret their actions? Have they made amends?
I don’t remember the circumstances of the car ride as a kid, whether he intended to hurt me or whether it was by accident, but the lesson stuck. Even today I find myself responding to apologies in a different way because of it. When Xavier apologizes for something, I don’t necessarily say “it’s okay,” if it’s really not okay. Instead I say, “I appreciate your apology,” or “Thanks for acknowledging that, I was really hurt.” It’s a way to accept or acknowledge the apology but also to communicate that the offense was wrong.
Using XYZ Statements
I took a family communications class in college that taught me how to express myself to my significant other through XYZ statements. Tell them what the action was, when the action took place, and how the action made you feel. I use apologies as an opportunity to communicate. “When you canceled our date last Friday, I felt hurt.” Just kidding, Xavier didn’t cancel a date, but you get the picture.
Several times in my adult life, I’ve noticed that other adults don’t see apologies as an opportunity to communicate. A missed opportunity, indeed!
Using an Apology as an Opportunity to Communicate
A few years ago, Xavier and I went shopping for a bicycle at a shop in a small neighborhood. I unknowingly parked in front of a couple’s driveway, blocking their entry or exit. Upon returning to the car, I found an elderly man and woman standing over my sedan, visibly angry. After realizing what I’d done, I apologized profusely. They said nothing, continuing to stare me down.
When I realized apologizing to the woman was getting me nowhere, I tried to appeal to the husband, explaining that it was an honest mistake. Xavier even tried to help. He didn’t notice the driveway, either. The man, who had been quiet during the entire exchange, said very slowly, “Either you’re drunk, or you’re an idiot.”‘
Apology Not Accepted
That was pretty much that. They told me they called the police, so Xavier and I slipped into the car and drove away. I felt horrible, and I reflect on it to this day. There’s nothing I could have done to make the situation better because they didn’t give me anything to work with.
It’s very possible they weren’t even trying to leave the house, that they’re the type of people who run out when they see a dog peeing on their bushes or someone not following the rules in the neighborhood (a la A Man Called Ove). But, it was Mother’s Day, and I can only assume I kept them from plans with family. They never said as much, but I still like to think that was true to justify just how upset they were. I think it’s a shame that they didn’t try to communicate with me, to tell me what I had kept them from.
She could have said, “When you blocked my driveway, you made me late for lunch with my daughter which really inconvenienced me.”
And I could have said, “I should have paid closer attention when I parked. I’ll never do that again. Let me buy you and your daughter lunch.”
Some people still think in black and white, the way I did when I was a kid. They think that to accept an apology is to accept the action, that there’s no middle ground. I think people, consciously or otherwise, believe that holding on to their anger will make the other person “pay.” Punitive damages of a social variety.
At the time, I really did care that the couple chose not to accept my apology. I felt a lot of guilt over it. But, I also felt angry that they turned their noses up at a sincere apology. When I’ve done everything I can to express myself, to apologize or make amends, and you decide to hold fast to your anger, that’s on you.
Apologies can be difficult for both the giver and the receiver. It’s often hard to admit when you’re wrong, and it can be tough to work it out when you feel wronged. There are big mistakes, there are little mistakes, and there’s a whole lot in-between. It’s important to have different tools to communicate with one another because at the end of the day we are the sum of our life experiences, and why not use an I’m Sorry moment as an opportunity to grow?