The Non-Apology Apology

In politics, at work, and in our personal lives, we’ve become so bad at stating a genuine apology that you’d think the words “I’m sorry” were harder to say than “She sells seashells by the seashore.”

I’m sorry.

That wasn’t so hard to write. But you wouldn’t know it from our culture today.

It’s true in politics, at work, and even in our personal lives. We’ve become so bad at stating a genuine apology that you’d think the words “I’m sorry” were harder to say than “She sells seashells by the seashore.”

Apologizing can be very unpleasant – humbling, embarrassing, and sometimes even scary because you don’t know if the other person will accept.

But a genuine apology is also a vital form of communication, necessary to maintain openness and trust. People owed an apology know they’re owed an apology – and they expect one. If you skip it, your colleague or friend will have a hard time getting beyond it, and you’ll have trouble communicating anything else from that point forward.

The opposite is true as well. When you own up to a mistake or lapse in judgment by offering a sincere and direct apology, you can actually build trust and openness.

The best approach is simply to say you’re sorry – and mean it.

So isn’t it surprising to watch the pretzels people twist themselves into just to avoid actually apologizing? How many times have you heard statements like these?

“If my comments offended some, I feel bad about that.”
Translation: You’re all too sensitive.

“I regret that there are those who misunderstood the intent of my words.”
Translation: I blame you.

“I’ve done some things I’m not proud of.”
Translation: I’ve let myself down. So I really should be apologizing to me.

These aren’t apologies. To qualify as a true apology, a statement must contain – in sequence – “I” and “apologize,” or “I” and “am” and “sorry.” Just as important: the statement must not contain words like “misunderstood” or “if.”

Maybe today’s legal-minded culture has taught us to fear apologizing. If you hit another car – even a parked car – you’ve probably learned not to say “I’m sorry.” An apology could be used in court as an admission of responsibility.

Instead, you’re supposed to get out of your car, approach the parked car’s owner, and say something like… “Ouch! My neck hurts!”

When people utter strained non-apology apologies to avoid offering the real thing, they’re wasting their energy and making a major communication mistake.

Offering a direct, sincere “I’m sorry” is the right thing to do. And until you get it out there, you won’t be able to communicate all the other things you want to say. Plus, when you get comfortable apologizing, you’ll find it’s not as difficult as you think.

I hate to brag, but I’ve gotten very good at apologizing – so good, actually, that now it comes naturally to me.

My wife: Robbie?
Me: I’m very sorry.
My wife: Huh? I was just going to ask if you got the mail yet.
Me: I apologize.
My wife: Did you hit your head or something?

See how easy it is?

By the way, if any portion of this article has offended anyone, I regret that you’ve completely missed the point.

How about you? What type of non-apology apology bugs you the most?

About the Author

Robbie Hyman is a professional communications and public affairs writer. He has 15 years’ experience writing for nonprofits, small business and multibillion-dollar international organizations and is available as a freelance writer for federal agencies.

Robbie has written thousands of pages of content, including white papers, speeches, published articles, reports, manuals, newsletters, video scripts, advertisements, technical document and other materials. He is also co-founder of, an online course that teaches smart money habits to teenagers.