The One Word That Can Screw Up an Apology

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The upside of apologizing is pretty obvious: You patch things up, you offload your guilt, and you move on from any tension or awkwardness that’s been plaguing your relationship with the person you hurt.

But the worst part of apologizing is obvious, too: It’s deeply uncomfortable. No one likes to talk about how they screwed up, nor does anyone enjoy making themselves vulnerable. Which means that we often make clumsy attempts to get to the good stuff without the requisite unpleasantness, offering up a non-apology that doesn’t require you to acknowledge any hard truths, but doesn’t really smooth things over, either. In a New York Times column earlier this week, writer Jane Brody highlighted one easy way to render an apology ineffective: Using the word “but.” As in, “I’m sorry, but …”

“Offering an apology is an admission of guilt that admittedly leaves people vulnerable,” Brody wrote, citing therapist Harriet Lerner’s recent book Why Won’t You Apologize? (Science of Us has previously interviewed Lerner about how rushing to forgiveness can be worse than holding a grudge, another topic covered in her book). Adding a “but” to the end, then, is “an excuse that counters the sincerity of the original message. The best apologies are short and don’t include explanations that can undo them.”

They also tend to have a few other things in common: According to one 2014 study on the subject, a well-executed apology requires the offender to make it clear that they understand what they did wrong, take full responsibility, offer a plan to fix things, and promise to improve in the future. An ineffective apology, on the other end of the spectrum, will include justifications or excuses, downplay the seriousness of the wrongdoing, or blame the person on the receiving end (like the most passive-aggressive of non-apologies, “I’m sorry you were offended”).

Dwelling on your own mistakes can be rough on the ego, sure, but if you think of it from a selfish standpoint, there’s additional incentive to do it beyond helping the other person to feel okay again. Apologizing is a little like ripping off a Band-Aid: Grit your teeth and do it right the first time, and it ends your misery, too.

The One Word That Can Screw Up an Apology