No matter how hard we try to avoid it, we are all doomed to hurt those we love. Quarantined, despite our best efforts, we are all meant to annoy those we love.
People are discovering that they cannot bear the way their partners chew, talk, and brush the cat. One woman even told her partner that if she dropped her pen one more time, they would be heading for divorce. “This whole experience has made me very aware that I want a man in my life, but not in my house,” joked Chris Enss, a comedian. “Yesterday the man asked me where we keep the spoons. The spoons, for heaven’s sake! We have been married for 31 years. Spoons are kept where they always are – in the cutlery drawer!
That hit close to home. A few weeks ago, during my annual attempt to cook (make pancakes), I asked my wife where I could find the spatula. She kindly replied by rolling her eyes.
Since we probably cannot anticipate when our behaviors will irritate others, we must learn to make amends later. Before the pandemic, the #MeToo movement offered a crash course on how not to apologize. In fact, some celebrities’ apologies were essentially a second insult, making 2017 not only the year of misconduct, but also the year of bad apology.
There is an excuse if: I’m not saying I did it, but if I did, I would be very sorry.
Then there is the no-fault apology: sure, I did something wrong, but I didn’t know what was wrong at the time.
There is also the pre-apology: I acknowledge my sins before someone accuses me, but here I am the true victim. I have many childish demons.
And finally, there is the lack of apology: my apology was genuine, but I didn’t do what I apologized for, so I deny it.
We know a false apology when we see it. There is evidence that if executives apologize for corporate wrongdoing while looking happy, rather than sad, their companies have poorer equity returns in the next three months. Investors realize the lack of sincerity.
Apologizing seems to be less of a problem in cultures with stricter rules of collectivism or courtesy. In Japan, a company apologized for a train that was leaving 20 seconds earlier. And in Canada, if you step on someone’s foot, they might apologize.
As a social scientist, I have been curious about how we can genuinely express remorse and repair relationships. After analyzing the apology research, I have learned that a good apology has three components.
First, show regret for the impact of your past behavior. “Sorry if …” is not an apology. It is an expression of doubt that you have done something wrong. Already at 5 or 6 years old, children spontaneously say they regret hurting his companions, and even occasionally his brothers.
A heartfelt apology acknowledges that your choices negatively affected others. “It is the acknowledgment of the wrongdoing of the damage, even if you think you were legitimate and justified,” Esther Perel, a therapist, said recently on my TED podcast, WorkLife. “Recognition involves an element of remorse or guilt, sometimes for what you have done to the other person, not necessarily because of your own action.”
Often we are so focused on defending our motives that we cannot see and recognize the consequences of our actions. It doesn’t matter if we intended to hurt someone. The reality is that we did, so we must confess.
Second, take responsibility in the present. Refusing to accept responsibility is not a sign of strength. It is a sign of narcissism.
In many circumstances, we are too busy finding fault with the other person’s actions and interpretations rather than accepting our role in the problem. “It doesn’t matter whose fault it is that something breaks if it’s your responsibility to fix it,” actor Will Smith explained after having a disagreement with a friend.
“Taking responsibility is acknowledging the power you take when you stop blaming people,” he said. “Taking responsibility is taking back your power.”
Third, describe how you plan to improve in the future. You cannot correct your errors if you do not explain how you will solve or prevent the problem from progressing.
Some people recommend a fourth step to ask for forgiveness. In my opinion, we must first fulfill our commitments. After all, integrity is about consistency between words and deeds. Forgiveness should not be granted when we promise to change. It should be won once we deliver on that promise.
All three steps are relatively easy to perform. The hard part is finding the motivation to apologize, because it means feeling guilty for doing something wrong and maybe even some shame at the thought of being a bad person. Psychologists have discovered a good solution for that: When you hurt someone, think about your core values. If compassion, justice, or generosity appear on your list, you may find that apologizing does not mean admitting that you are a bad person. It is simply a step to become a better person.
What if you are the annoying during blocking? It is worth remembering that when people disappoint us, it is not because of their actions. It is because his actions did not meet our expectations. You cannot control what people do, but you can choose not to let their actions drive your emotions.
I didn’t want to ignore where the spatula is, but I’m sorry I did. I understand how maddening it must have been! Knowing the precise location of all utensils is clearly my responsibility as a member of this household. To make sure it doesn’t happen again, I put a temporary removable tag in the spatula drawer until I have memorized its location.
Once the closing is over, I will take a trip to Spatula City to stock up. The next time I can’t find something, I promise to check every kitchen drawer before imposing on you. As you watch me ransack our house like a thief, I hope you take a short break from laughing at me and find it in your heart to forgive me.
Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton, is the author of “Originals.” For more information on Esther Perel, and for information on how to strengthen relationships in isolation, listen to WorkLife with Adam Grant, an original TED podcast on the science of making work not shit. You can find WorkLife on Apple Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform.