Why Do Some People Find It Impossible to Apologize?

Photo: Larry Marano/REX/Shutterstock

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Lucy Flores, a former state assemblywoman who shared the story of an inappropriate encounter with former vice-president and current presidential candidate Joe Biden, wrote about apologies: specifically, those that haven’t been made, but should be made, by Biden himself. So far, in response to Flores’s accusations of harassment, Biden has made only a vague, gee-shucks statement in which he excuses his tendency to touch women he doesn’t know as signals of his “support and comfort.” In lieu of apology, Biden suggested men (himself included) “pay attention” to accounts like Flores’s — which is not to say he named her.

Biden has similarly evaded apologizing to Anita Hill, whose public humiliation and dismissal he enabled in his role as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time of Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination hearings, during which Hill alleged that Thomas sexually harassed her when she worked for him at the Department of Education and the EEOC. Twenty-eight years later, in preparation for the public scrutiny that accompanies a presidential campaign, Biden told the crowd at an April event in Pittsburgh that he’d called Hill to apologize in private. Hill does not agree with that assessment. Thus, the list of things Biden has failed to apologize for only continues to grow.

Biden is, of course, far from the first public figure to appear constitutionally incapable of producing a worthwhile apology. (Many non–public figures have this problem as well.) But he is the most recent, and most visible, and in some ways, the most frustrating — why can’t the man who introduced the Violence Against Women Act in 1990 apologize to the woman he very publicly harmed a year later, and the many women who’ve said he touched them inappropriately since? What is it about him that makes him unable to say he’s sorry?

For one thing, he is a man. “In all cultures studied, men apologize less frequently than women,” says psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of Why Won’t You Apologize?. “I think one of the greatest risks of being an under-apologizer is to be raised male, and the greatest risk of being an over-apologizer is being raised female.” As a culture, we tend to emphasize only the latter portion of this dichotomy, routinely arguing that women should apologize less. But research suggests that while women apologize more often because they believe they’ve done more wrong, men don’t apologize because they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. (See Biden telling The View of Hill last month, “I don’t think I treated her badly.”) What’s defined as “wrong” is often subjective, but in Biden’s case, he is being told, repeatedly, that he has done wrong. And he still won’t apologize.

Lerner says she sees this a lot in heterosexual relationships. “Men mention this a lot in marriage: They don’t know if their apology will open up the floodgates to more criticism, or be used against them,” so they don’t do it, she says. Refusing to apologize, then, is fundamentally a sign of insecurity, says Lerner. “In order to offer a heartfelt apology, a person needs to have a solid platform of self-worth to stand on,” she says. “From this higher vantage point, the person can look out at their bad behavior, and they can apologize because they’re able to see their mistakes as part of a much larger, complex, ever-changing picture of who they are as a human being.”

By contrast, people who’ve done more harm — and who are less self-aware — stand on what Lerner calls a “small, rickety platform of self-worth,” one that’s always near collapse. And nobody wants to admit they used to be a worse person than they are now, says Edwin Battistella, a linguist and author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology. “If you apologize, you’re sort of shaming an earlier self,” he says. “By apologizing, you’re seeking forgiveness, and to be welcomed back into some sort of relationship or community, and that’s hard for a lot of people to do.”

Essentially, apologizing is scary! There is no way to know, for sure, how someone will respond, and there are times when apologies don’t work. To some — especially among those who’ve done serious harm, says Lerner — an apology is a risk not worth taking. Or, as she poignantly puts it, “A non-apologizer walks on a tightrope of defensiveness above a huge canyon of low self-esteem.”

This is not to say that apologizing — or at least good apologizing — comes easily to, well, anyone. “We are wired for defensiveness,” says Lerner. “It’s very hard for humans to take clear and direct responsibility for specifically what we have said or done.” When requested to apologize to Flores (and other women whom he inappropriately touched) by the hosts of The View, Biden managed only the following: “Sorry I invaded your space … I’m sorry this happened.” By failing to name his specific actions, and by using the passive voice, Biden evaded responsibility despite using the words “I’m sorry.” His defensiveness may be a normal human impulse, but we (usually) expect our leaders to be better than average, and it’s harder to tolerate that kind of floundering in a person whose primary role is to communicate with, and to, the American people. Shouldn’t politicians, of all people, have access to people who can help them do better? Assuming they do, and they still can’t sincerely apologize, one is forced to conclude that they don’t really care to learn how.

Perhaps, then, Biden’s greatest sin — like so many non-apologizers before him — is not in the language used, but in his failure to empathize with those he has pseudo-apologized to. “No apology will have meaning if we haven’t listened carefully to the hurt party’s anger and pain,” says Lerner. “More than anything, the hurt party wants to know that we really get it, that our empathy and remorse are genuine. That we’ll carry some of the pain we’ve caused, that we’ll do our best to make sure there’s no repeat performance.”

How exactly to communicate this understanding varies apology to apology. There is no script, though there a good apology tends to start with accountability. “A sincere apology begins with the specific words or behaviors that you are sorry for,” says Lerner. “‘What I did was wrong.’ ‘What I said was wrong.’ ‘What I failed to do was wrong.’” Most apologies, Lerner says, fail to name the action (or inaction) that precipitated them, and people notice.

Talking to Lerner and Battistella and thinking about this story made me reflect on my own poor apologies past and hope to do better in the future. But to apologize well requires that you mean it, and it’s hard to mean it when our immediate, natural instinct is to try to save face. If humans are hardwired to be defensive, maybe we need to allow ourselves, and each other, a certain apology grace period — but then again, in Biden’s case, 28 years would seem far more than enough. It’s unfair for the hurt party to be asked to be patient on top of everything else. It’s unclear how else to ensure apologies are done well, and sincerely. Maybe — fine — it really isn’t so much about apologizing more as it is apologizing better. Slower (slightly!), but more thoughtfully.

“From doing this research, I find myself apologizing less, but when I apologize, I try to do a full-fledged apology that says what I did wrong, and why it was wrong, and what I’m going to do differently in the future,” says Battistella. Practicing what he’s learned, he says, is really hard. But if we can collectively admit that a good apology is hard for anyone to give, perhaps we can also accept those rare occasions when someone is truly, obviously trying to do it right. We may not know what exactly a good apology sounds like until we hear it, but, says Lerner, we recognize sincerity, and, in Biden’s case, the lack thereof.

Why Do Some People Find It Impossible to Apologize?