Do we over-apologize at the wrong times? Jen Fisher says yes and why we should stop

In the context of the tragic and horrific discovery of 215 unmarked graves from the children of the Indian Residential School system in Kamloops and some 751 graves on Cowesses First Nation, Saskatchewan, many of us have been feeling deep sorrow for our Indigenous neighbours. The word “apology” has been on our lips, in the media, and on Parliament Hill.

Many of those reading and watching about these discoveries were not involved in the abuse of 150,00 Indigenous children, who were cruelly taken from their families and mistreated or tortured, even to the point of death. But we recognize these atrocities and express sorrow for what we did not control. We also offer to walk with our Indigenous sisters and brothers as they seek to heal and to be reconciled with themselves, their painful histories and  with other members of Canadian society. We must also commit never to let such atrocities recur.

Much of the abuse we have been learning about germinated from leaders of the Catholic Church, in schools run on behalf of Canada’s Federal Government. Most thinking and feeling Canadians agree with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Indigenous leaders, such as FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron, that Pope Francis needs to express a profound apology on behalf of the Church he represents. Moreover, Trudeau and SK Indigenous leaders have called for the Pope to come to Canada to deliver his apology—in person.

At least one Catholic person whom I know believes that the Pope should also express that apology—formally—in Rome, something he has failed to do, since it is his Church and the Federal Government (originally led by Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald) which must take responsibility for these egregious violations of human rights.

What worries me is that as we Canadians walk in loss with our Indigenous neighbours, many other, less serious matters seem to trigger knee-jerk apologies (some of which we hear in local news) that weaken the sentiment of what an apology really means. This reality affects and connects both entrepreneurial communities and Indigenous ones. Words are powerful and  the words “I am sorry” can be depleting. This week’s blog posting considers how.

Outside of the echelons of the Vatican and away from the atrocities of the Residential School system, while it may sound initially jarring, there are truths about the value of apologizing in our workaday lives that we need to acknowledge, if we are to preserve the meaning of “I am sorry” for our Indigenous neighbours.

It has often been noted that apologizing, along with Tim Horton’s coffee and the latest NHL scores, is a reflex of many Canadians. (Many have casually joked that when you step on the foot of a Canadian, s/he will apologize more quickly than you do.)  In entrepreneurial circles, the American Jen Fisher (Chief Well-being Officer at the financial regulatory and advisory firm, Deloitte), has observed that apologizing reflects our instincts to seek acceptance and belonging.

While Fisher has made no public comment connecting apology making and human rights violations, such as those committed against Indigenous children in Canada, Fisher says that in far more minor circumstances, we need to “reclaim the power of the apology for when we really need it.” She writes: “ ‘I am sorry’ is too important a phrase to waste” in miniscule moments in an office or boardroom. The words are then weakened so as to have less effect, when they are “actually warranted,” such as in cases  of human rights violations.

If we apologize unthinkingly (i.e. over-apologize) in minor situations, we “appear less confident, which can in turn make us less confident.” We feel that lack of confidence, which then interferes with our capacity for empathy that all humans desperately need to offer each other. Knee-jerk apologies, then, can do more harm than good.

Fisher recommends nine ways to reconsider how we use apologizing in the smaller moments of workaday life:

(1) Know when to apologize: Fisher recommends that we choose to apologize in part by acknowledging what we have done.  In cases such as the Residential School atrocities, we need the power of a full apology from Church and from Government, and from the vantage point of citizens who were not there, but who still share victims’ pain and want to offer support.

By contrast, in workaday exchanges, such as when we request legitimately a service,  Fisher says, we have not done wrong and should avoid weakening expressions like “I’m sorry to bother you.”

(2) Go to the root of the problem: If you apologize for something in particular, Fisher says to “go to the source of the problem. If you can change what is mistaken, it may save you from over-apologizing.” For instance, if you’re frequently arriving late to commitments in your life, recognize that you need to revise how you manage your calendar. “Thank you for your patience,” is more appropriate than an apology, in cases where one’s delayed by uncontrollable circumstances.

(3) Be open and truthful: In more workaday circumstances (emphatically unlike the Residential School atrocities), it can be better to give context for something you cannot stop or control. Fisher cites the example of a worker whose young child cries in the background of a Zoom meeting: “You can explain that [the child] missed her nap.”  Here, too, “you can let others know why” or enlist their help to fill a gap for which you might otherwise over-apologize.

(4) Learn from mistakes: In routine life (emphatically unlike the Residential School atrocities), when small things happen imperfectly, Fisher says: “even if it is our fault, instead of ‘I’m sorry,’ we can take responsibility and acknowledge what happened and learn from it. What is essential is that we provide an explanation as to ‘how we’ll do this differently next time.’ ”  We need to let our colleagues, friends, supervisors and others know that we “take their concerns seriously.”

(5) Reach for empathy, not sympathy: The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut made famous the distinction between sympathy (“I’m sorry that happened”) and empathy (“I can tell that was really terrible/overwhelming/painful for you”). Fisher says that while sympathy is good, empathy allows us to open a conversation and deepen a relationship.

She notes that we can use our empathy “to . . . stop someone else from feeling the need to apologize,” when it is not warranted.  (In front of a screaming child on an airplane, a fellow traveller could say empathetically, to the child’s parent: “I feel like your child does, today!”)  We must shore up our supplies of empathy for times when a full and heartfelt apology (such as in the context of our Indigenous neighbours’ histories) is warranted.

(6) Be grateful:  Fisher notes that while over-apologizing depletes our self-esteem, “gratitude does the opposite.”  When we think of things we’re grateful for, our minds are buoyed, and that buoyancy can spread to others. If we are grateful that we have benefited by living and working on land once held by our Indigenous neighbours, then we need to gratefully acknowledge that and do what we can to be reconciled with those neighbours. We can give them our gratitude and support of many kinds to help them to heal.

(7) Never apologize for caring for yourself: Fisher says we should never apologize for taking time to take care of ourselves—and this applies to everyone. When we don’t take sufficient care of ourselves, we’re more likely “to show up as poor versions of ourselves and to apologize preemptively for things” that we’re just “too depleted to deal with.”

Being “unapologetic” about workaday self-care can save ourselves from actions that could demand serious apology, later.

(8) Give yourself and others grace in challenging times: In religious terms, “grace” refers to unmerited Divine assistance given by a Deity to humans for their regeneration and redemption (OED).

In the terrible context of the atrocities committed against our Indigenous neighbours, when the Federal Government and the Catholic Church apologize, they would do well to point to the reality that only genuine spiritual assistance can overcome the inhumanity they have caused. Only grace can uplift victims from inhumanity done (treacherously) in the name of a God or organized religion or government.

As a workplace wellness specialist, Jen Fisher writes more generically about showing grace to ourselves and others, as these pandemic times recede. But her words also apply to the work of Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. She writes: “As our society begins to open back up and people  . . . return to the workplace, it’s not always going to go smoothly. People are going to have different comfort levels about . . . simply being around other people again. So give yourself some grace.”

We can add: Don’t over-apologize when apologies are not needed. Save those apologies for when they really are. Fisher concludes: “And extend that grace outward, too, since we don’t always know what challenges others are dealing with.”

Now more than ever, our Indigenous friends need the gift of emotional and spiritual grace: It can begin with a heartfelt apology from others, for what they have experienced and continue to endure, today.

Let’s follow Fisher’s insights to avoid over-apologizing for miniscule things and save our apologies for when they are really due. 

And now it’s your turn: What do you notice about mainstream culture’s tendency to over-apologize, when unwarranted, that weakens our feelings and words for times when apologies truly are needed?  Please write in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.