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Being Sorry vs Repenting

October 20, 2010

There was a great Wall Street Journal article on apologies on October 19th by Elizabeth Bernstein noting the differences between men and women in being offended and issuing apologies. I remember earlier in my career, a co-worker giving me the advice “Never admit you are wrong and never ever apologize.” Needless to say he wasn’t a very good team player!

Bernstein says “Odds are your mother taught you that it’s important to apologize if you’ve done something wrong—and to graciously accept an apology when one is offered. The act of making amends is crucial to maintaining harmony in both our personal relationships and the world at large.

Apologies are so important that many hospitals train their staffs to say they are sorry to patients and their families following a medical mistake because they’ve found it deters malpractice lawsuits. Economists have shown that companies offering a mea culpa to disgruntled customers fare better than ones offering financial compensation.

But apologies can be complicated. They’re not always forthcoming, or even sincere. Making matters worse, there’s a gender “apology gap”: Men and women have different approaches and different expectations when it comes to acts of contrition.

Conventional wisdom says women apologize too much, and men don’t apologize often enough. Women are good at nurturing relationships, the thinking goes, while men are too egotistical to say they’re sorry or have a different take on social graces. Yet there’s no proof that women are better than men at apologizing—they just do it more often, sometimes for inconsequential offenses.

Two small studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, published last month by the journal Psychological Science, indicate men are just as willing as women to apologize if they think they’ve done something wrong. Men just have a different idea of what defines “something wrong.”

In the first study, 66 men and women kept daily diaries and recorded each time they committed—or were on the receiving end—of an offense. They also noted whether an apology was issued. The outcome: Women were offended more often, and they offered more apologies for their own behavior. Yet men were just as likely as women to apologize if they believed they’d done something wrong.”

So it seems that the real power (behind both an apology and within any sort of conflict) is the ability to have empathy.   Empathy requires you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to perceive how your actions affect the other party.  Jesus said in what is often proclaimed as the “Golden Rule” that we should “Do unto others as we would have done unto us.”  In some senses this is a corollary to what is known as the Great Commandment of Loving God and Loving others.  By recognizing and knowing how God loves us, we are better equipped to love and care for others.

Yet in many ways even apologies and empathy fall short if we commit the same sins over and over again.  The real power in a ‘true’ apology is the ability to recognize our failure (moral or otherwise) and to turn or repent from it … desiring to change in such a way that we would not want to repeat the same failure.   If apologies are not heartfelt we should dig deeper to understand what is going on within us.  Are we merely sorry we got caught? Then perhaps we shouldn’t apologize until there is a desire to change.   This can only come (as implied in the Great Commandment ) by bringing our offense to God and then to men.

The next time you apologize, examine how you do it and consider what repentance might look like before you open your mouth to declare your guilt.

For more on the Discipline of Repentance consider reading “Professionals: Men and Women Partnering with the Trinity in Everyday Life.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. Joe Lineberry permalink
    November 21, 2010 1:30 pm

    Assuming we really want to apologize, I think the concepts in the Five Languages of Apology (Chapman and Thomas) are helpful here. They assist us in trying to apologize in the language that the hearer will recognize in seeing and understanding the apology as sincere.

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