Monday, June 4, 2012

How to Apologize

Apologies are rare things to make the news, yet this week one did with Dharun Ravi's apology to the Clementi family for his actions that led Tyler Clementi to take his own life. I have followed this case the way I follow much of the news, in that I listen to NPR in my kitchen in the morning. Thanks to the iPhone, I check headlines and my favorite writers throughout the day. While I think Tyler Clementi's death tragic, and Ravi's actions that contributed to it abhorrent, I didn't obsessively follow the court proceedings. I didn't weigh in at Ravi's potential deportation or jail sentencing. Though I often have quite a bit to yell back at my kitchen radio about, I didn't yell about this case – or I didn't until I heard Ravi's apology this week.

Except that I don't know that we can call it an apology. Mostly, it was a statement read by his lawyers. When Judge Berman asked if Ravi had anything to say to the family about his actions, he said nothing. Given that Ravi made extensive attempts to cover up his actions, many commentators and Op-Ed writers concluded Ravi didn't feel remorse, or that if he did, it was only remorse for getting caught.

There is an art to apologizing, and it's not really one that is often taught. We think we are teaching our children to apologize: any time our toddler goes to a play ground and grabs a toy that isn't his, the knee jerk reaction is to demand s/he say their sorry. While this tells children they are expected to tell people they are sorry when they do something that upsets someone else, it doesn't teach them about responsibility for their actions or about being accountable for the repercussions of those actions. So, what we often end up with are people who say they are sorry, simply because it's expected of them to do so. And this is what Ravi's apology sounds like: his advisors standing over him like his parents used to do at the playground, “Now. Say you're sorry.”

Tyler Clementi's family was right to reject the apology and say that it was insincere. They were right to say that “a sincere apology is personal” and to point out that “it included no words of sincere remorse, compassion or responsibility for the pain he caused.” Because it didn't. An effective apology requires compassion and the ability to see the damage done from another point of view; the apologizer has to be able to understand why the other party feels wronged.

Instead, Ravi's statement allows that he just made a thoughtless mistake. He writes, “my behavior and actions, which at no time were motivated by hate, bigotry, prejudice or desire to hurt, humiliate or embarrass anyone, were nonetheless the wrong choices and decisions.”

If Tyler Clementi were my son, I'd give Ravi's apology a no pass too.

I too would ask for some authenticity, or at the very least, I'd ask, if your actions were not motivated by the desire to hurt, humiliate or embarrass someone, what were they motivated by? Because sticking a camera in someone's bedroom when they have a date coming over, and then inviting all your friends to watch is actually a pretty clear attempt to humiliate or embarrass or laugh at someone. Anytime we stick someone into the position of “other” or “different from us” we are hurting them. And anytime we seek to look good or feel included at the expense of someone else, you are bullying.

An actual apology takes courage. It takes courage to acknowledge one's hurtful actions and those it impacted, but when doing so, it shows the other party that you understand the cause-effect nature of your actions, and that your actions have repercussions that you didn't anticipate.

An actual apology also requires an explanation for why the offense happened, what motivated it, what led someone to take a considerable amount of action to hurt someone else. An explanation for the behavior has others see that you understand the damage of your actions and that your behavior is worth changing. Injured parties want to know that the wrongdoing won't occur again; an effective apology reassures them that it won't.

Often, effective apologies also make reparations. In Ravi's case, the court has assigned these in hours of community service. Still, it wouldn't have hurt Ravi to ask Clementi's family about what they wanted him to do or if there was anything he could do that would ease the pain he caused. It's thoughtful.

Everyone does things that hurts other people or at the very least bothers other people, but it takes vulnerability to admit that you were wrong or that you did something that really hurt someone else. On the playground, it is nice to apologize, but it doesn't mean anything if it's just out of expectation, and not actual compassion.



Becky said... [Reply to comment]

And in reverse, it hurts when you do give a sincere apology and the person doesn't accept it and move on. Sometimes you can really learn about someone's character, and in that situation, you're better off not being around that person.

I do agree that apologizing isn't simply saying you're sorry. One thing that I have recently read, that I had never thought of before, is that the phrases: "I'm sorry if you feel that way..." or "I'm sorry if you..." isn't a sincere apology but a way to avoid responsibility for your actions. []

I never viewed it that way before and always thought that was an acceptable apology since offense is taken not given, but my intent might have been for ill, so I need to realize that my words aren't always said in innocence.

Tara said... [Reply to comment]

It does hurt when someone doesn't accept an apology or when you do take absolute responsibility - and it is their right. Some people take awhile to forgive or don't have an interest in forgiveness. Sometimes these people are easier not to be around - I at least have a hard time being around people who don't allow you to move forward from a mistake you've accounted for.

And yes - I find the I'm sorry you feel that way apology the most absurd and insulting if not completely devaluing of things to say.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

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