The Art & Science of
The Essential Elements of a Good Apology
Contemplate the role and value of apology in “correcting” an injustice and fostering reconciliation.
What are the essential elements of an effective apology? What makes an apology ineffective or even damaging? What are the outcomes of a good or bad apology for both the victim and transgressor? Science has shed some light on these questions.
Walk through the discussion questions, readings, and primary sources below. While doing so, contemplate the role and value of apology in “correcting” an injustice and fostering reconciliation.
As we learned earlier, justice and reconciliation play an important role in society. In many cases, an important first step in reconciliation is an apology. But not all apologies are constructive.
What elements make for an effective apology?
What elements ruin an apology?
What are the roadblocks to giving an apology?
What’s the value of a good apology? Why apologize?
The Japanese American redress movement culminated in the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, in which the U.S. government officially apologized for its treatment of the Japanese American community during World War II and granted each surviving incarceree $20,000 in restitution. When survivors received their check in the mail, they also received a formal letter signed by President George H. W. Bush.
Evaluate the primary source documents below in terms of their effectiveness as an apology. To what extent do these documents address the four components of an apology?
Do you believe the U.S. government offered an effective apology? Why or why not?
The Congress finds that —
(2) the internment of individuals of Japanese ancestry was carried out without any documented acts of espionage or sabotage, or other acts of disloyalty by any citizens or permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry on the west coast;
(3) there was no military or security reason for the internment;
(4) the internment of the individuals of Japanese ancestry was caused by racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership;
(5) the excluded individuals of Japanese ancestry suffered enormous damages and losses, both material and intangible, and there were incalculable losses in education and job training, all of which resulted in significant human suffering;
(6) the basic civil liberties and constitutional rights of those individuals of Japanese ancestry interned were fundamentally violated by that evacuation and internment…
The purposes of this Act are to —
(1) acknowledge the fundamental injustice of the evacuation, relocation, and internment of United States citizens and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry;
(2) apologize on behalf of the people of the United States for the evacuation, relocation, and internment of the citizens and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry;
(3) provide for a public education fund to finance efforts to inform the public about the internment of such individuals so as to prevent the reoccurrence of any similar event;
(4) make restitution to those individuals of Japanese ancestry who were interned…
Excerpts from the Civil Liberties Act of 1988
Primary Document 1:
Components of an Apology
The following is an excerpt from “The Art of Apology: When and How to Apologize” by Dr. Martha Beck.²
Start by describing exactly what you did wrong, without avoiding the worst truths. Once the facts are out, acknowledge that your behavior violated a moral code. It doesn’t matter whether you and the person you’ve hurt shares the same ethics: If you’ve broken your own rules, you’re in the wrong. Accept responsibility.
Full acknowledgment of the offense
A truthful explanation is your best shot at rebuilding a strong, peaceful relationship. The core-deep explanation for your behavior is your key to changing for the better. Explanations help you and your victim understand why you misbehaved and assure both of you that the offense won’t recur. Excuses merely deflect responsibility. Leave them out of your apology.
Anyone who has been on the receiving end of the comment “I’m sorry you feel that way” knows the difference between sincere regret and an attempt to avoid responsibility for bad behavior. Few things are less likely to evoke forgiveness than apology without remorse.
Genuine expression of remorse
An apology includes real repair work: not just saying “I’m sorry.” Often there will be nothing tangible to repair; hearts and relationships are broken more often than physical objects. In such cases, your efforts should focus on restoring the other person’s dignity. The question “What else do you want me to do?” can start this process. If you ask it sincerely, really listen to the answer and act on the other party’s suggestions, you’ll be honoring their feelings, perspective, and experience. The knowledge that one is heard and valued has incredible healing power; it can mend even seemingly irreparable wounds.
Reparations for damage
Apologizing is rarely comfortable or easy, so if you’re going to do it at all, make it count. Aaron Lazare, MD, a psychiatrist and dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has spent years studying acts of contrition in every context, from interpersonal to international. He has found that, to be effective, most apologies need to contain the following elements:
Letter Signed by President
George H. W. Bush, 1990
Primary Document 2:
Courtesy of Dr. Gary Mukai
Holly Weeks, “The Art of the Apology,” Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 19 May 2003, https://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/the-art-of-the-apology [31 July 2020].
Martha Beck, “The Art of Apology: When and How to Apologize,” MarthaBeck.com, July 2012, https://marthabeck.com/2012/07/the-art-of-apology/ [5 August 2020].