How to Ask for an Apology, and Why it's Important You Know How

Women are adept at saying "sorry." Linguistics professor and author, Deborah Tannen, found that women are more likely to offer apologies as a "conversational ritual" in the workplace. Being seen as offensive is so abhorrent to women, we offer "sorry" as a way to smooth the way, to sympathize, and to be liked in the face of even a simple request.

"For so many women, myself included, apologies are inexorably linked with our conception of politeness," essayist and author Sloane Crosley writes in the New York Times. "Somehow, as we grew into adults, 'sorry' became an entry point to basic affirmative sentences."

But what if our request is, in fact, for an apology? Sorry, but I need you to say "I'm sorry" isn't going to cut it anymore.

Many women, if asked to pause and reflect, might be shocked by how unpracticed they are in asking someone to offer their remorse. When Serena Williams stood beneath umpire Carlos Ramos's chair at the US Open, hers was the phrase heard around the world:

You owe me an apology.

It's not something we're accustomed to saying.

"I have certainly expressed personal and professional grievances," writes Brittany Packett in ELLE. "I have given voice to hurt feelings and frustrated moments with greater intention as I've grown in confidence—a confidence which is hard earned. But the idea that someone would need to affirm responsibility for their actions and impact on me had just never occurred to me. I have quietly carried the scars of apologies desired but never received, seething with resentment but never questioning why I didn't demand an apology in the first place."

Recounting the story of an assault in high school, Packnett writes, "[O]n that day, I learned with abundant clarity that black girls don't demand apologies." She goes on to say that women are socialized to prioritize the comfort of others over their own comfort, and this is especially the case for women of color, "mules of a society determined to pin domestic and social labor on Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous women who suffer in silence for fear of punishment and degradation."

"Serena's declaration was an instantaneous declaration of freedom," Packnett writes.

It's the freedom to seek an apology you've long deserved. Yet it's important to note what Serena didn't do. She didn't ask for an apology. She simply and firmly stated that she was owed one.

Amy Dickinson, writer of the Ask Amy column at the Chicago Tribune, has said that asking for apologies can put people on the defensive.

"I actually don't think that demanding apologies works," she told NPR. "For instance, if you demand something and then you receive it, it's probably not very satisfying. You've demanded it."

Instead, she suggests talking about what happened. Tell the person how hurt you are; paint your emotional response in a way that makes vivid to the offending party how they wronged you. This should prompt an unbidden apology.

This strategy works best with people who already genuinely care about your well-being. And so there are some instances, she says — like seeking an apology from a father who abandoned his family forty years ago — when it's best to manage your expectations.

"The kind of guy who's going to ditch his family is not the kind of guy who's going to step up and say exactly what you need him to say," she said.

If you do intend to seek an apology from an offending party, effectively asking for it is the mirror image of offering one, says lawyer and mediator Wesley Fenza. He offers this four-part structure:

Here is what you did…

Be specific. Rather than say, "You hurt me," say, "You interrupted me three times at the dinner party last night."

This is wrong because...

"When you interrupt me, I me feel invisible or like you don't care about what I have to say."

Here is what you could have done instead…

"You could have allowed me to tell the story or invited me into the conversation to offer my perspective when you were done telling your part."

I would like an apology [or another specific action]

'Nuf said.

Again, success is much more likely in pre-existing, mutually respectful relationships, and might not be quite as effective when confronting the dude who cut you off in traffic. Still, in the right circumstances, receiving the apology you deserve can heal old wounds.

"An apology is a lovely perfume," writes author Margaret Lee Runbeck. "It can transform the clumsiest moment into a gracious gift."

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