Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sorry, but... WSJ article on apologizing

Rachael (Starke, not DAOD — but indispensable in her own way, nevertheless) alerted me to an article from Monday's online Wall Street Journal titled I'm Very, Very, Very Sorry ... Really? Written by Elizabeth Bernstein, it employs new research from Canadian psychologists as a launchpad for discussing apologies in human relations.

The article dovetails somewhat with the two-parter at Pyro that I started yesterday and plan to conclude tomorrow, but it is different. Genuine apologies are virtually always part of genuine repentance, but my focus over-thereward is different. Repentance may include that, but it is seldom limited to that. So we get to discuss the article here.


Okay, I'm not really sorry, but that's the sort of thing a man might say to keep the peace, Ms. Bernstein wisely observes. The article is a pleasant read, written with humor and experience, including findings from the research as well as anecdotal observations and interviews.

Bernstein observes that men and women often want and mean different things by apologies. To a man, an apology is likelier to mean something along the lines of "What I did was wrong; I should never have done it, should never do it again, and ask you to forgive me for it."

To a woman — while certainly often including exactly that meaning — an apology may have tones along the lines of "What I did upset you, I care about you and our relationship, and I'm sorry you're upset." So when a woman sees a man refuse to apologize...
  • To him, it may simply be because he can't imagine how what he did was immoral or irrational
  • To her, the refusal means he does not care about her, her feelings, or the relationship.
Bernstein quotes from a man who's been married 36 years. He figures that, in that time,
he has sincerely apologized [see my "man" definition above, I think, for his meaning] to his wife, Carol, just five times—but has said he's sorry an additional 3,500 times. He calls these mea culpas "fraudulent apologies." They go something like this: "I don't know why you're unhappy, but I'm sorry."
"Ninety percent of apologies are to keep the peace," he adds. "How can you have a sincere apology if you don't know what you've done?"
I have learned over the years that male/female communication is a tricky thing, both an art and a science, and fraught with danger. The most maddening aspect of it is the fact that we may use the exact same language, and yet mean such different things. So doing it well (I speak as a theoretician) is like speaking a foreign language that uses all the same words as the mother-language — yet with wildly different meanings.

It is like ordering a hamburger in a restaurant where the language is English, but the term for "hamburger" is "summer squash." Even though a man knows that, if he wants hamburger he must say summer squash, he shrinks from doing so, for fear that he might get the latter rather than the former.

A pigheaded man — which some will unkindly murmur is a tautology — will refuse ever to apologize (except as outlined above), because it is unwarranted. He may be 100% correct, of course. But his refusal communicates to his wife that he doesn't care about her, her feelings, or the relationship. So, he is meaning "I can't tell you that it was immoral for me to read the newspaper, because it wasn't" — and he's correct. But what she's hearing is "I don't care that you felt unimportant, I don't care that you felt unloved, and I don't care about our relationship"... though he is neither saying nor meaning any of that.

If a man offers such an apology, then, is he lying? Is he harming his conscience, or insulting his wife?

In no way... any more than I am when I say embarasada in Spanish and mean "pregnant," though the word sounds like "embarrassed" in English. When he offers such an apology, he's communicating exactly what his wife hopes to hear, but in her language.

Where's wisdom, then? This is what Ms. Bernstein neglects to say, if she knows it.

The wise couple will fear God, and embrace His order for the home, with the husband leading and the wife respectfully following his lead.

The wise/godly wife will thank God her husband is a man, respect him for the man he is, and mortify (put to death — Romans 13:14) any internal drive to try to feminize her husband or bludgeon him into compliance. She will learn to hear his language and accept it for what it is. That is putting 1 Peter 3:1-6 into practical application.

The wise/godly husband will thank God his wife is a woman, love her for what she is, cherish and care for her as Christ cares for the church, and — while not leaving his fundamental mooring as a godly man — learn to speak her language. That is putting 1 Peter 3:7, as well as Ephesians 5:25-28, into practical application.

NOTE that each of those is what the godly husband/wife should do — not what either should demand that the other do.

You see, the Cross has something to say to us both, even in this area.


Tom said...

Interesting post. I must admit I was a little surprised by this:

"If a man offers such an apology, then, is he lying? Is he harming his conscience, or insulting his wife?

"In no way... any more than I am when I say embarasada in Spanish and mean "pregnant," though the word sounds like "embarrassed" in English. When he offers such an apology, he's communicating exactly what his wife hopes to hear, but in her language."

See, even this is wrought with danger. Because the second a man knowingly say, "Sorry," with the intent of meaning, "I love you and care about you," you're opening the door for a woman to say, "You're not sorry for what you did; you're just trying to get me to calm down/appease me/leave you alone."

See: no one would disagree over the definition of "sorry" or "I apologize." It's just that in the heat of the moment we hear different things. So, to add another kink to it: it's like using "summer squash" to mean "hamburger" when you're hungry, but use "hamburger" to mean "hamburger" when it's Tuesday. Get my drift? That should be sufficiently confusing. To say it like a man: that's illogical :-)

I think one good -- not perfect -- approach is to be lovingly honest: "Honey, I disagree that what I did was sinful, but I can understand [or not] how it made you feel. It wasn't something that communicated love to you. Even though we disagree, I do love you and I want to keep the lines of communication open."

Sumpin like that. No?

Looking forward to these comments!


JMJ said...

Gary Chapman's book: The Five Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships has helped in my marriage. His analysis, similar to his other book: The 5 Love Languages, breaks apology down to 5 things people mean when they say "I'm sorry".

I can only remember 2 right now (mine and my wife's): when I say "I'm sorry", I'm only expressing regret. But when my wife says "I'm sorry", she expresses repentance and desire to change. When she hears me apologize, she used to think I meant repentance, and when she doesn't apologize (it's much harder to express repentance, than mere regret), i used to think that she doesn't regret what she does.

This sort of communication clarity has helped us. we try our best to be abundantly clear what we mean when we say "I'm sorry", now.


DJP said...

Don't know that book, but you do spark a thought. Though it gets nearer to what I'm talking about at Pyro, I'll share it here.

This disconnect is why sometimes we (especially men?) have to ask questions when someone apologizes, or claims to have repented. It's important to know what the speaker means. Has he sinned, but all he's saying is "Sorry you're upset, now let's move on"? Or is it actual repentance?

Anonymous said...

36 years and only 5 "true" apologies? Any person (man OR woman) who thinks they've wronged their spouse 5 times in 36 years is delusional.

DJP said...

True; I'm charitably thinking that both of his figures are exaggerated to make his point.

Otherwise... eesh.

Rob Bailey said...

I was on a mission trip in Mexico a long time ago and one of our pastors had the embarasada slip during a sermon. Mild compared to my catastrophe with a slip while reading a quote that used the word "organism." I'm sorry.

Tom said...

Dan, that's I think where it gets fuzzy. To be fair to anyone, repentance is really something that can only be measured over time. While it's a "transforming of the mind" (did you coin that? I like.) But "I'm sorry" is generally (not always) something that is over a specific incident.

Then again, you can't separate them, either. Because to the degree that one is "sorry" for having done X, to that degree his mind is changed/transformed (or vice versa) and will strive to not do it again. (Emphasis on strive, not literally never do X again.)

All that to say, if by "I'm sorry," I mean, "I repent," that may very well be true, but only time will tell. Thing is, it isn't always the most conducive thing to a relationship to wait and see if the person is REALLY repentant before we forgive (or are forgiven).

Oh, the tangled web we sinners weave. Personally, one big reason I'm looking forward to heaven is that I will finally be free from this body of death and sin.


Robert said...

To me, it seems that if we are really sorry, then our lives will reflect it. Yes, we may slip up here or there, but we should be sensitive to the areas where we are harming one another. Even if we feel justified in doing/saying certain things (outside of gospel presentation, reproving sin lovingly, etc.), if we know it will offend/hurt somebody then we should strive to not do it. This isn't the easiest thing to do, but if we are showing true love for others, then we should take it seriously when we say we're sorry for something.

Taking this a step further into repentance of sins and our relationship with God, we know that sin offends we should be striving to not sin. The amazing part of this is that He provides us with the will and the power to do so when we empty ourselves of our own sinful desires and fill ourselves up with His holy desires. How sad it is to me that I don't fully tap into this and live my life by His power and for Him alone.

I, too, am anxious to be in heaven where I'll be free from sin...especially pride and the fear of man.

Stefan Ewing said...

"I speak as a theoretician"


In all seriousness, much could be said about apologizing, and I can concur with my brothers and sisters here, based on my own experiences.

What's interesting is that as the nature of my relationship with my wife has changed (for the better, praise God!), the sincerity of our apologies has deepened, as has our understanding of what it is that hurts the other person and why.

What a wonderful, loving, forgiving God we have, through His one and only Son Jesus Christ.

Aaron said...

I loved the five love languages book. It helps with all relationships (works well with kids too).

I think many of us are dubious about apologies because in today's politically correct culture an apology means "I'm sorry you're offended" not "I'm sorry I did this or said this." Apologies are rarely given that are actually meant. I personally hate apologies when I know they aren't meant.

As a man, I'm not sure I understand the difference between regret and repentance (especially since the dictionary definition of repentance is regret).

@April: I think part of the problem is that apologies don't always take the form of "I'm sorry." If my wife says, you should have done x,y,z, my response will most likely take the form of "You're right, I'll fix it" rather than "I'm sorry."

Stefan Ewing said...

Hah! I didn't even catch the irony that it's Canadian researchers who did this study on apologizing. Sorry 'boot that, eh?

Rob Bailey said...

Other side of the coin. Psalm 119:165.

Herding Grasshoppers said...

Hmmm. Thinking about "sorry". And I think sorry doesn't really mean much. Or maybe it means too much - too many different things.

Because saying "sorry" isn't the same as confessing.

Maybe it's better to say, "It was wrong of me to _____. I'll try not to do it again. Please forgive me." And leave 'sorry' out of it.

But that could be kind of cold and mechanical.

Trying to get at the heart of it, and acknowledge the feelings involved, without basing it all on emotions.

Making any sense?


DJP said...

Yes. I recall decades ago someone (Jay Adams?) saying that "Sorry" was a report on your emotional state, and had nothing to do with repentance.

I don't entirely agree. There is a school of thought that makes repentance superficial and mechanical. You know, yesterday I checked the OK box next to Behavior X, today I erase that and check NOT OK, and I'm done. That doesn't dig deep enough.

So I wouldn't legalistically seize on the word if someone were to say "Sorry." But (depending on the circumstance) I just wouldn't leave it at that. "Sorry" what? Sorry you were caught? Sorry to have to bother with it? Sorry I'm making a fuss about it?

Robert said...

I think it is important to also have the emotions tied in with the will. Not that this happens overnight, and sometimes we have to act by will against our emotions. However, the longer we follow the path of repentance, the more we will truly feel sorry for when we sin against God and hurt one another. Now, if the will is not involved and we are remorseful (but not repentant), then we are just being guided by our emotions and making them our god. There needs to be a balance, though. Does the Bible not show God to have emotions (anger, joy, sadness, grief)? It is just that He exhibits them in a perfectly holy manner...we don't.

Rachael Starke said...

I knew your take would be more Bibley. :)

The whole "language" aspect between husbands and wives is such a big part of the challenge! I've been thinking back to the heart of disagreements between my Phil and I. I can't remember a single one that didn't have at its foundation "Do you love me?", and its variant "Do you love me as much as I love me, and if not, why not?", even when it was about something like not being home when promised or leaving shoes laying around. And,like you call out, many times a weak apology is really about loving ourselves by trying to smooth things over with minimal cost to ourselves.

In my dear quiet Phil's case, he's not a big verbal apologizer, and yet when he's had time to reflect, I'll notice that his actions do change in a way that shows me he's repentant, even though he hasn't said it. Me, being a woman of words more than actions, I'm good with the eloquent apology, but notsomuch with doing the fruits in keeping with the eloquent apology. At least, I used to be that way. I've been repenting of my incomplete repentance. No doubt I'll have more repenting to do tomorrow after I read your part two! :)

Aaron said...

@Robert: huh?

@DJP: Repentance is more than a mere intellectual assent that something is wrong. I'd argue that as humans, we should have an emotional feeling of contrition.

"Sorry" is a word and it means "regret." But obviously, people can conceal the subject of their regret by being vague or simply lying. And personally, I don't buy the whole mysterious language between women and men. Men know exactly what they are doing when they say "I'm sorry."

Aaron said...


If you haven't yet, read The Five Love Languages. What you are describing is exactly what the author talks about in the book.

Susan said...

Well, speaking of apologies, I recently had a phone conversation with an old friend from college (he's a guy). Toward the end of that conversation I was reminded of an incident in which he was extremely annoyed with me and as a result yelled at me and told me to "get out"--this, in front of another acquaintance!! Needless to say, I immediately left the scene and started to cry. So here I was, years later, telling him that he never apologized for this, and he immediately said sorry but followed up with, "How come I don't remember this at all?" Before I could recover from feeling surprised, he quickly said, "But that doesn't mean it never happened." Precisely. After he said that, I was okay with his apology. :)

Anonymous said...

The Five Love Languages is definitely worth a read. Very helpful book.

Robert said...

@Aaron: Just saying that this pursuit should wind up aligning our emotions with our will. We should find joy in repentance. We don't need to be led by our emotions, but eventually our emotions should reflect the fact that we love to seek God and His righteousness (by His power). Just like the more that we are in God's Word and following Him as Lord, the more that we enjoy and long for time in the Word. Does that make more sense?