Apologizing is much more than saying you’re sorry, Dave Kaiser writes—it’s saying you care.
I would like to address the flip side of Guilt: the Apology. A lot of men struggle with apologies. In the 1949 film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, John Wayne’s character says, “Never apologize and never explain—it’s a sign of weakness.” Many men, wanting to appear strong, have taken this attitude on. To what effect, though? My experience has been that when I make a mistake and then fail to own it and fix, it hurts the other person, it hurts me, and it hurts our relationship, so everyone suffers. This is doubly true when we are dealing with the women in our lives.
So what’s going on? Bottom line is that many men believe they have to earn love, and that if they make a mistake or do something wrong, they risk not being worthy of love, and that’s too scary to deal with. Admitting a mistake means facing shame in a healthy way, and many men simply can’t or won’t do that. So they “stick to their guns,” damage important personal and business relationships, and find themselves living a state of constant resentment, at others and from others. They also live out of integrity. This is not acceptable. Mumbling a sheepish, half-hearted, little-boy “sorry” won’t cut it either. The world needs better.
So what do we need to do differently?
There are two possibilities. One is, you actually did something and it hurt the other person. Your intentions do not matter here. Allow me to repeat, YOUR INTENTIONS DO NOT MATTER! You promised to finish a report by 5 p.m. Thursday and you didn’t. You said you would be home at 6:30 for dinner and you came in at 7:15, due to traffic (which was out of your control, right?). You agreed to take out the trash and you forgot. In each of these situations, regardless of your intentions, the result is that you failed to keep your word. This failure may have caused a problem for the other person, and at the very least, it demonstrated that you are not trustworthy, because you didn’t keep your commitment. What are you going to do? Blow it off, so that you don’t show weakness? Argue with the other person that it was no big deal? Get mad at them for getting mad at you? (I have personally done all of these, numerous times.) Is that what a “real man” does? No. A BOY runs away. A MAN cleans up his messes. Here’s what you do instead.
Own your mistake. State the commitment and state what you did instead. “Honey, I said I would take the trash out, and I didn’t, so you had to do it yourself” or “Boss, I said I would have that report on your desk this morning and it’s not ready yet.” Then ask the other person what the impact was on them, and listen closely, and for God’s sake (and yours) don’t try to argue or minimize it, just shut up and listen. Next, fix the problem if you can (the report is still due) or offer to do something to make amends if you can’t (your wife already took out the trash, but she hasn’t done the dishes yet). Lastly, come up with a plan to prevent this sort of thing again, and tell the other person: “Boss, next time, I’ll put it in my calendar to start that project a week in advance” or “Sweetie, next time you ask me to take out the trash, I’ll do it right away if I can, or make a note in my to-do list and then be sure to follow through.” Then be sure to do it! This demonstrates that you value your relationship with that person, and it shows that you take your commitments seriously. That’s what a man does. Screw John Wayne.
So what if it’s not your “fault?” Traffic was unexpectedly heavy. A client called you and you dropped everything to deal with it. Your plane was delayed. Someone on your staff didn’t finish their part of the report. That’s not your “fault,” right? It doesn’t matter. Men don’t play blame games; men take responsibility. When you make a commitment, you want people to believe you will make good on it. If “sh*t happens,” like traffic or snow or crazy clients, and you can’t keep that commitment, you take full responsibility and proactively reach out to the other person as soon as you can, and make the situation right as discussed above. If sh*t keeps happening, more often than you would like, you are somehow being unrealistic and you will need to arrange more reasonable deadlines, or maybe just say no. There is a wonderful Scottish proverb: “Promising but not delivering is worse than refusing.” If you can’t deliver, say so. The other person may be angry, upset, sad, but at least you have told the truth and they know where they stand. Accepting an unrealistic agreement to make them or yourself feel better only means that you and they will feel much worse later. Not good.
OK, what if it’s the other person’s “fault?” Here is where you have to look at yourself closely. In this sort of situation, it’s rarely black and white, where one person is right and one is wrong. Usually, even if the other person did something glaringly wrong, you contributed to the problem too. Think about the last fight you had with your wife/girlfriend. She may have “started it,” but you picked up the ball and ran with it, right? Yeah, I thought so. Look for something you did wrong. Or maybe even something you could have done better. You have to clean that up, and you do it without waiting for the other person. You know you made a mistake, even if the other person won’t admit theirs (and they may not). You clean up your own messes. Integrity comes from the inside.
So, it may feel bad to have to cop to all these screw-ups and then fix them, but the payoff is that the people around you will start to see you as someone they can count on, and you will see yourself this way. You word will be as good as gold. You will be trustworthy, you will respect yourself more, and others will respect you more too. You will be a leader, a man of integrity, a man who follows through, to the benefit of his superiors, partners, direct reports, wife, family, and community, you will be a man that people, including yourself, count on.
Whew, hard work, right? Yes, and totally worth the effort. What’s the alternative? Being irresponsible, making messes that others need to clean up. The people around you get tired of this, quickly.
So what is the other possibility? Maybe you didn’t do anything “wrong,” but your wife/girlfriend is really upset. Dara McKinley, quoting Allison Armstrong, wrote that “Nothing (NOTHING) soothes a woman like the words ‘I am sorry I hurt your feelings.’” (This post is totally worth the read—thanks Dara, you are emotionally brilliant!) So, what I am suggesting, and this may seem radical to many, is that you apologize any time your wife’s / girlfriend’s feelings are hurt, regardless of fault, blame, guilt or lack thereof. Dara’s words sum this up best: “This sentence [‘I’m sorry I hurt your feelings’] was MAGIC to the feminine essence and not because it meant I did anything wrong. It meant I loved, respected, and acknowledged that I affected her.” Maybe you know what you did, maybe you don’t (in which case I suggest you think about it a bit), maybe whatever you did isn’t your “fault” and her upset feelings seem bizarre to you (you moved the coffee table and she tripped over it, not your fault, right? It’s hers!). Maybe you don’t think you did anything at all.
Apologize anyway, and do it from a place of love, not from an empty place of placating her. People can sense it when you are patronizing them, and they hate it. So, there is no Shame, no Blame, no Guilt, just Responsibility. You know you are doing your best in the world. You know you are a man of your word. You are proud of yourself. And you are strong enough to say the words your wife/girlfriend needs to hear to feel better about you, herself, and your relationship. It will feel awful the first few times you do it, I can promise you that. But when you see her calm down, you will know it’s worth it.
So, how does a man handle apologies? When he has made a mistake, he owns it and cleans it up. When his wife/girlfriend is upset, maybe he did something, maybe he didn’t, he checks in with her to see if he needs to clean up a mess he made. Even if he didn’t make a mess, he apologizes for hurting her feelings because that shows her love and respect, and contrary to his boyish fears, it doesn’t diminish him, it makes him bigger, stronger, and more loving.
I’m sorry I wasted my time reading this idiotic article.
Read between the lines – this article talks nothing about apology, and everything about what? – BEING a man. Being 100% responsible for what you say, and what you’ve done and what you are doing, NOW.
FANTASTIC article, I’m guessing that last paragraph is just to stir controversy.
This article is about what works, and being accountable and producing results works.
We’re getting caught up in fault and blame. The way I see it, a good man isn’t interested in fault or blame, just responsibility. If you missed a deadline, even if it wasn’t your “fault,” take responsibility and fix it, and better yet, come up with a plan so it doesn’t happen again. If your wife’s or girlfriend’s feelings are hurt, because of something you did, then say you’re sorry you hurt her feelings, whether that something was “wrong” or not. Let go of the blame and shame and be part of the solution, not the guy pointing fingers. When… Read more »
J.J: It is demonstrably false that all people see apologies as making your opinion “more valuable”. Sometimes they just see apologies as an invitation to attack. Other people see “partial” apologies -where you own up to what you feel or believe that you did wrong but not for every aspect of the argument – as dishonest. I’ve had to deal with that issue 2 or 3 times in my life. Also, to far too many people, the first one to apologize “loses”. You may not like that this occurs but you have to consider people’s reluctance to apologize in place… Read more »
While learning to apologize is a useful skill that some men would do well to cultivate, an apology given for something that is not your fault – as an example your ridiculous contention that because , say a plane crashed and delayed you two hours you are no longer “trustworthy” – is not and never will be required. Many women do NOT respect men who apologize all the time for every little thing, and if you act as if you are always “wrong” when arguing with your wife or girlfriend, I believe you will rapidly lose all her respect or… Read more »
Nothing makes me lose respect for a person faster than when s/he can’t own up to her/his failings. This article is pointing out that there is not generally a “right” or “wrong” person when problems arise. You should always own your piece in “every little thing” that goes badly in your relationships. And so should anyone else involved in those “little things.” Owning your contribution to a bad situation doesn’t mean taking undeserved total responsibility. It doesn’t make you “wrong” and the other person “right”. It doesn’t mean you are negating your self worth or admitting you are some kind… Read more »
@Dave Kaiser: Amen to that, brother. Very good article.
To everybody thinking that apologizing when not at fault is wrong, I think the author didn’t mean saying “I’m wrong”, but “I’m sorry because you hurt”. It’s not being guilty, it’s being caring. You can be caring even when 100% right.
And, since we’re talking about screwing old clichès, let’s screw “Love Story” as well: “Love means saying ‘I’m sorry'”. 🙂
I don’t provide or expect apologies for things other than those that are due to intent, negligence or some other trait that is within a reasonable amount of personal control. I do understand that apologies are sometimes given for just about everything, and I take these more as social conventions, much like a morning “Hello” in an elevator. Not a lot of value, but if you have the time and feel the need to – go right ahead. I’m also more generous with my apologies with those that show similar generosity, which leads me to think that apologizing should not… Read more »
I dislike the implications attached to apologizing for something that is clearly not your fault. To run with the coffee table example in the piece, if I sit my hypothetical girlfriend down and deliver a heartfelt apology for her tripping on it, all I’m doing is absolving her of responsibility. If this happens enough, I will be implying that it is my fault when she is careless. I wouldn’t expect a restaurant employee to apologize to me if I walked into a recently-cleaned door because I didn’t see it, after all. If part of being a man is owning your… Read more »
Apologizing and taking accountability are two different things though. For a man, it’s about the positioning and your approach. You can apologize, but the need to explain is inherently positioning yourself as weak.
I apologize for all women who have watched boys fail miserably in school for decades and did nothing.
Yes, men. Do you hear that? The sneaky FEMINIST site that pretends to not be a FEMINIST site even though it mostly discusses FEMINISM wants you to carry a sense of heavy guilt for what you’ve never done and raise up the suicide rates among males.
This ought to be interesting. There’s a hole boatload of issues in this piece. Time to break out the popcorn. Oh, and can we quit with the John Wayne references. I don’t think anyone actually making these references ever watched any of his movies. You just sound silly to those of us who have. Try Clint Eastwood or Chuck Norris maybe. It’s a better fit.