Is Is it ever a good idea to apologise?

Powered by article titled “Is Is it ever a good idea to apologise?” was written by Tim Lott, for The Guardian on Friday 31st January 2014 12.59 UTC

As I write, the row about Lord Rennard and his failure to apologise for alleged sexual harassment rumbles on. Of course it matters whether he did it or not – but I am more interested in the question of whether he should apologise if he didn’t.

I am fascinated by the power of apologies, which operate at all levels of society; but in the family they are particularly significant because, just as in politics, they are crucial to the smooth running of events and the healing of wounds. But what constitutes a “real” apology? And when is that appropriate?

I am a profuse apologiser. For the most part, I do not find it difficult to say sorry when I’ve done something wrong. This stems largely from my worldview, which incorporates my belief that making mistakes is an everyday activity that all of us participate in, and is nothing to be ashamed of. To hold on to your rectitude in the face of self-knowledge is simple pride. It costs nothing to apologise and achieves much.

But it’s not that simple. My wife has tended to take my apologies lightly because they come so easily to me. As such, there has always been a question mark over whether she will accept my apology, as there are times when she sees it as an easy get-out.

I can see her point – but it’s a painful stance to be on the sharp end of. Having an apology rejected is extremely painful, but unfortunately you can’t take it back again – so you are left in the position of having failed to restore equanimity while at the same time making yourself vulnerable by confessing your fault.

Then there’s the Rennard question. What if (and in the case of Rennard it’s a big if) you’ve done nothing wrong – should you still apologise? Some would say it takes a very big person to do this. I am not that person. If I feel I am in the right, which I occasionally am, I simply will not apologise, because it feels fake and insincere, and however much it might gain me in terms of restoring family harmony, I find myself incapable of it.

However, in this regard I am something of a hypocrite because I often insist that my children apologise even if they do not mean it. That they do not mean it is evident from the vicious snarl or sarcastic tone in which they utter the words “sor-ree”. But I make them say it all the same, because it represents a certain humbling that they are too immature at that point to be capable of. Perhaps some adults never achieve that maturity.

It’s not all about maturity, though. The fact that I apologise at all seems to me an advance over my father, whose philosophy was to never apologise for anything, ever. Frankly, I found it infuriating and yet somehow there was a certain strength in it, I suppose, along with the stubbornness. There can be an unattractive element of self-abnegation in apology. My father certainly never suffered from that.

On the whole, although apologies can be insincere, or represent a kind of Uriah Heep-like plea for unearned redemption, I consider willingness to offer them absolutely essential to the harmony of the family and the wider world. Apologies make a very important statement: “I am not perfect. I am not always right. And I am able to find the humility to not only admit it on this occasion, but also recognise it as a fundamental condition of being.”

To teach the art of apology to children – and it does not come naturally, to put it mildly – is one of the most important life skills you can give them. The alternative philosophy – “never explain, never apologise” – may ensure that your view of yourself as omnipotent is never threatened. But in the long run, it is a recipe for conflict and resentment. Sorry – but it’s true.

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