Let’s Discuss: Apologies

Originally posted on Vorpal Bunny Ranch.

Oh no! Suddenly your social media feeds and inbox are full of irate people peppering you with accusations of being insensitive, a bigot, all because you used a sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic/etc. word, image, or phrase. What do you do?! Fret not, I will go through a list of actions you should take and avoid.

DO: Apologize
“I am sorry for <insert thing I did/said/insinuated here>.”

DO NOT: Shift
“I apologize if I hurt or offended you.”

Why?
It may come as a surprise, but people are not always collectively unintelligent. Indicating you are apologizing for offending shifts the blame on the people to whom you are offering the apology: “I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those knee-jerky, want-to-be-offended kids! Ooooo!” Instead, apologize for what you did, which can help the conversation move forward.

Note, the longer this process takes, or the more steps you toss in along the way to an actual apology, the more difficult it will be for some to take the apology seriously.

DO: Understand and listen
The world is a big place. You do not know everything. You will make mistakes. When someone is angry, try and listen to the words they are saying.

DO NOT: Think you understand
Making assumptions about what people are saying, rather than actually listening, can cause problems. If you receive a variety of complaints, take a moment to look into the common underlying themes, try searching the internet for resources, and learn what it is that went wrong.

Why?
Very few of us are perfect. When I was a freshman in college, I said some pretty heinous things to a black friend of mine regarding Egypt and its ancestry. I was just parroting back what I’d learned in school, and only a year or so later did I educate myself enough to learn of the historical significance of discounting Egypt as part of a rich narrative of black accomplishments — a tactic often used to belittle African Americans as ‘obviously’ inferior, as they had no culture that was noteworthy.

I felt like a tool. My friend was incredibly patient, and when I apologized, and explained why, he was glad that I had learned from the experience and that I had taken the initiative to educate myself (largely because he realized sometimes we have to come to something ourselves, and he didn’t want to argue over this — it was not his responsibility).

DO: Show consistent actions
It’s difficult, but once you’ve made one mistake, people will look out for others. If you take what you hopefully learned and make sure to educate anyone else on your team about this, slip-ups may still happen, but you can easily and quickly rectify course on the matter in the future.

DO NOT: Apologize and go do it again and again and again
Drat! We totally just did the same thing again a month later. Oh no, now we’ve happened to do this wrong! It’s a cascade!

Why?
Just because you apologized, someone does not have to accept it. By showing consistent actions, you can help repair any harm done. The focus is not necessarily to make sure everyone likes you, it should be to do no harm. That person who won’t accept the apology may never come back, but you can make sure you do not replicate that instance.

Also, whether unfairly or not, the internet is a place that can dredge up past mistakes. If you’ve been suffering foot-in-mouth disease multiple times over a short period of time, it will be that much easier to bring up past mistakes and transgressions. Remember that bit about learning? Please go look over that again.

Again, we all make mistakes. The question is whether you genuinely apologize and see what you did as wrong, or if you dig in your heels and alienate potential customers, friends, users, or whatever your case may be. While the impetus for this is the numerous game companies I’ve seen this apply to, I believe it is much more general than that.

About Denis Farr

Denis Farr is a white, androgynously gendered, TAB, German-born and U.S.-schooled, male-sexed queer person (with a penchant for other male-sexed queer persons) who started writing about games at Vorpal Bunny Ranch (in other words, he's loquacious). He has continued with this endeavor, expanding his writing to both GayGamer.net and here at The Border House. A strong proponent of expanding diversity in games, his focus is often on how characters are depicted in games, and exploring the language we use to explicate games themselves.
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14 Responses to Let’s Discuss: Apologies

  1. Alex says:

    This is so great, now I have a handy link for the next time someone delivers a crappy non-pology. Thanks :)

  2. Lima Zulu says:

    Alex, I was thinking the same thing, lol.

    This piece was fantastic and I definitely need to mail it to, well, practically my entire family. Denis Farr, you’re awesome.

  3. Ms. Sunlight says:

    What really gets me is that this isn’t advanced stuff, it’s basic manners. Parents teach little children this stuff. When you hurt someone you should apologise to them, try to mean it and do your best not to do it again. If small children can grasp this stuff and tell a fauxpology when they see one, why do so many grown-up idiots (who often have professional PR people working for them!) think they can get away with it?

    • SwadianKnight says:

      Apologizing is an admission of guilt, and a lot of grown-ups have trouble reconciling their image of themselves with their behavior.

      • Sandy says:

        Personally, I think an apology is a way to say “I appreciate how you feel” rather than an admission of guilt. I may be the only person who feels this way, though. ^^;

        • SwadianKnight says:

          You’re absolutely correct. An apology is definitely about the person it’s directed to rather than the one making it, and my post was very poorly worded – it’s the empathy that matters, the admission of guilt is just one of the ways in which it is shown.

          Thank you for your reply!

    • Lycastus says:

      I think that although most parents teach their children to apologise, only some of those teach them to mean it. The difficulty being that you can force a child to apologise by rote quite easily, but you have to actually act humble yourself over a period of years, leading by example while they learn from you, to teach a child to mean it. Even more so for learning to not do it again – keeping to your word and not being a hypocrite are character traits, not simple skills, and are developed over a lifetime, influenced by the people, culture, and environment around us (including, but not limited to, our parents).

      I think children possibly find apologising easier in general too – children live in a world they still have a lot to learn about, and most are fully aware of this, and treated by others as if this is the case. They are used to being wrong, and finding out that they possibly shouldn’t do that thing they just did again. Adults also live in a world they don’t fully understand, but don’t always admit this, and are often expected to act as if this is not the case. They have learned enough that they are less used to being wrong, and often believe they have a handle on everything. Hence, they might naturally find it more difficult to admit mistakes than children.

    • Mossy says:

      As Lycastus below says, basically.

      I think part of the problem is that so many parents force children to apologise – “say you’re sorry!” or “what do you say?” – rather than trying to get children to understand the feelings of the hurt party – “look, little Johnny is crying; how do you think he feels about you taking his truck away without asking?” or modelling the correct behaviour ourselves – “I’m sorry, little Johnny, that I screamed at you. It was unnecessary and I can see I hurt your feelings. That wasn’t right of me and you don’t deserve to be screamed at.”

      Actually, despite the rhetoric that most of us parents these days are far too soft on our children, I think we are too casually mean to them and don’t apologise enough for the little things we do that hurt their feelings.

  4. AMM says:

    [Got here via link from geekfeminism.org]

    DO NOT: Apologize and go do it again and again and again

    (Thumbs up.)

    This is step zero. If you’re doing wrong to people, the very first thing you have to do is to stop doing it!

    Apologizing, atoning, reforming, gettin’ “washed in the blood of the lamb,” etc. — none of that is worth a drop of spit unless and until you stop doing the crap you need to apologize for. If you’re standing on my foot, get off my foot first, then apologize. Doing it the other way around is just adding insult to injury.

  5. Sandy says:

    Wow, really interesting post. :) That first one confuses me, though. What if you stand by the ‘thing you did’, but still regret that someone got hurt? Wouldn’t saying “I’m sorry for ‘thing I did’” end up letting yourself down?

    • Belden says:

      I think if you simultaneously “stand by the thing you did” and “regret someone got hurt”, then you either do not really stand by what you did (you respect the other person’s hurt feelings more than your right to perform the act which caused the hurt), or more likely you don’t actually regret having hurt the other person’s feelings.

      To be able to support both notions simultaneously is to refuse to accept that your actions had an effect on another person’s feelings.

      I try to slow myself down and really step back whenever I start feeling righteously indignant. This to me is the signal that I’ve divorced my cause and effect, and that I’m not fully accepting the outcome of my actions.

      I’ve said “you” a lot here. I mean “one”, really. And by “one” I may only mean “just me”.

  6. zvi says:

    Apologize for hurting the person that you hurt. Acknowledge that they were actually hurt, not just that they took offense or they felt bad.

    Apologize for what you did do wrong. Chances are slim you made it out of a shitstorm and did no wrong.

    If you really, truly think you behaved well all the way through, first, double check with your most lawful good friend, and then, if you can’t think of anything to say to help defuse the situation, stop talking. You are not required to keep feeding the controversy, and people can go back and read your original message (if this is online.)

  7. mclicious says:

    Not only do I think this is perfect, spot-on, and going into my bitly bundle, but you also win at the best writer bio ever.

  8. metalorganic says:

    Thanks for this. At present, I am tired of patiently explaining to white feminists that about 99% of white folks’ comparisons between racism and sexism are just hurtful and offensive (not to mention racist, as the implication is that racism and sexism are always experienced separately). It’s quite frustrating to see people defending themselves into the ground when all that’s necessary is an admission that they did something hurtful.

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