On Apology

On Apology
Author: Aaron Lazare


Why is saying sorry so hard, and why do we get it wrong so often? These are some of the many questions this book explores in its very comprehensive approach to a very tricky subject. Defining it as ‘one of the most profound human interactions’, the author acknowledges that apologising is a ‘paradoxical‘ process which is ‘remarkably complex and yet simple and straightforward‘ (pages 1 and 22-23). The book sets out to explain why our culture discourages apologies, and why most people avoid it all together, or when they do apologise, end up offering hollow and insincere pseudo apologies which ‘often do more harm than good‘ (pages 8, 138, and 169). The author resolves the intricate relationship between apology and forgiveness, and addresses several related concepts such as remorse, humility, conscience, sincerity, empathy, honour, dignity, pride, courage, self-esteem, repentance, restoration, and reconciliation (pages 17 and 159-169). 

Tri-X 400 @ 1600. Rodinal 1:100 for 1h. Formulary TF-5 for 6 minutes. Scanned using a Hasselblad Flextight X1

Before unraveling the ingredients of effective apologies, the author first considered the types of actions and behaviours which frequently trigger offence. Some of these are trivial but many are compelling, for example rejection, betrayal, public shaming, and unfair treatment (pages 46-49). He described the crushing effects of offences on their victims, paying particular attention to the stunning humiliation they commonly experience, an emotion which, if unresolved, may result in ‘humiliation rage‘ and the holding of grudges (page 46). The only panacea for this is a true apology, and the author expounded on the elements that are required to achieve this, qualities such as ‘honesty, generosity, commitment, courage, and sacrifice‘ (page 10). The author then explored the four distinct stages that comprise the apology process. He drew particular attention to acknowledgement of the offence as the most important first stage, and which itself has four parts, and may fail in eight different ways (pages 75 and 85). In a similarly thorough approach, he reviewed the other three stages of apology: the explanation; the sincere expression of remorse and guilt; and reparations (page 35).

By Paul Lehugeur – http://www.histoire-fr.com/carolingiens_decadence_1.htm, Public Domain, Link

A significant part of the book explores the manifold benefits of apologising. Apart from absolving the victim of any blame, the author points out that the apology process has the power to heal humiliations, relieve guilt and shame, dampen the desire for vengeance, foster forgiveness, and restore broken relationships (pages 1, 78, and 138). The author adds that the apology process also restores dignity and self-respect to the offended because it transfers humiliation from them to the offender (page 52). Amongst many other benefits, apologies also lessen the impact of the offence by offering suitable reparations, and by reassuring the victim of safety from future harm (pages 34-35 and 44-74). 

Guilt. daneshjai on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/daneshj/6149379556

Perhaps the most insightful aspect of the book is its exploration of the reasons people fail to apologise after offending others. The author suggests that this is often driven by their desire to ‘preserve their view of themselves and to avoid punishment‘ (page 106). He adds that shame plays an important role in holding people back from offering apologies because it compels them to hide their humiliating actions, unlike guilt which compels them to make amends (pages 19 and 136). Far worse however than not apologising, and more destructive, is to offer an apology that fails; the book defines this is an apology which does not adequately acknowledge the offence, does not genuinely express remorse, and does not offer appropriate reparations (page 9). The author argues that these are not real apologies but explanations and defences which, because they are dishonest and manipulative, diminish the gravity of the offence, and insult the offended party (pages 72 and 121-125). 

By Klaus D. Peter, Wiehl, GermanyOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Of practical importance are the many recommendations the author proposed towards making apologies effective. An example is his advice on the appropriate verbal expression of the apology; rather than the common phrases ‘I am sorry’ and ‘I apologise’, which do not acknowledge responsibility for the offence, he advocated the more comprehensive phrase ‘I was responsible. I deeply regret it. I have no excuse‘ (pages 24-26, 98, and 125-127). His advice on the best timing of apologies is to offer them immediately after public and non-personal offences, but to postpone them after serious personal infractions; this is because a delayed apology carries a better chance of restoring the relationship (pages 173-178). He pointed out that it is never too late to apologise for historical transgressions, and if these were offences committed by forebears, current generations have the responsibility to apologise on their behalf; he justified his position on this by arguing that ‘just as people take pride in things for which they had no responsibility…so, too, must these people accept the shame‘ (pages 202, 179, and 40-41).

CC0, Link

The author illustrated his lessons with many interesting and high profile anecdotes, several of them relating to previous American Presidents. For example he criticised Richard Nixon‘s resignation apology speech because Nixon made it in the passive voice, and under ‘a cloak of conditionality‘ (page 91). On the contrary, he praised Bill Clinton‘s apology for the Tuskagee syphilis experiments which acknowledged the African American victims as ‘humans with rights’ (page 51). He also credited Abraham Lincoln‘s second inaugural address as ‘an exemplar of the apology process‘ because it fully acknowledged the wrong of American slavery (pages 78-79). For a perfect mea culpa however, the author pointed readers to Richard von Weizsacker‘s apology for Germany’s role in World War II; this is because it totally acknowledged the offence, it fully defined the offending behaviour and victims, and it did not offer any rationalisations or excuses (pages 80-81).

By OnlysilenceOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link


Offence and apology are central to medical practice, and this book addresses both subjects exhaustively and passionately. The author successfully explored the concepts of harm and blame, putting these contentious issues which complicate healthcare-related apologies into proper perspective. The book graphically depicts the causes and complications of offences, and the process and benefits of apology. The author illustrated his arguments with many historical examples, although disappointingly from a psychiatrist, most of these were non-medical. This however does not detract from the powerful lessons of the book which apply to every sphere of human endeavour.

Overall assessment

This book presents concise and practical lessons on all aspects of the apology process. It highlights the fundamental importance of putting the victim at the centre of the apology process, an issue healthcare still struggles with. Each topic the author covered has direct relevance to the practice of medicine, and I highly recommend it to all doctors.

Book details

Publisher, Place, Year: Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004
Number of chapters: 12
Number of pages: 306
ISBN: 978-0-19-518911-7
Star rating: 5
Price: £13.70

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