Against Excessive Apologising

post by Chris_Leong · 2019-07-19T15:00:34.272Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · LW · GW · 5 comments

Many people would say that if you realise that you are in the wrong, then you should always apologise. Perhaps, they'd exclude sociopathic situations where this would be used to manipulate you, but that'd be it.

However, it's easy to forget that apologising creates a cost for the person who is apologised to. They have to read your message and perhaps write a reply. This later component is tricky if they aren't convinced that you've made up for it. It reminds them of an experience they might want to forget. Further, it requires them to deal with a topic they may be completely sick and tired of.

If you apologise, it should be because it helps prevent or mend a rift with the other person. You should be extremely cautious about apologising when it's because that's what you think a nice person would do, as opposed to something more specific, since those are precisely the situations where you are likely to end up apologising with no benefit to anyone.

Now most people don't apologise enough and so this is probably the wrong advice for them. But Less Wrong samples a particular segment of the population and I suspect it includes a disproportionate number of those people who over-apologise.

5 comments

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comment by Dagon · 2019-07-19T16:30:07.718Z · score: 3 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Ehn. "excessive" is doing a LOT of work here, and needs to be expanded for this to make sense. I'm with you if you mean "apologies more intricate than the crime", and disagree if you mean "apologizing often". Learning to make (and to receive) a good apology is a useful skill in interpersonal relationships.

Apologies communicate knowledge of harmful behavior, ideally in a way that lets the victim understand and get closure on the incident. They help in reducing attribution bias (where people assume you're a jerk, rather than a fallible human). They make it clear that it's a behavior you'd rather not have people copy.

Especially if it's uncomfortable to admit your imperfections, you will be biased against making apologies unless you see clear benefit, rather than making apologies unless you see harm. It's FAR too easy to be over-cautious instead of under-cautious in this. And even worse when status games start playing into it (apologize upward, ignore downward to reinforce a position rather than to communicate knowledge of harm and future intent-not-to-harm).

There are certainly apology-like behaviors which I'll recommend against - passive aggressive "I'm sorry my legitimate behavior is unpleasant for you" and defensive affirmation-seeking "I'm sorry! Please tell me it's OK and you like me!". These objections are more about integrity of apology, not excess quantity.

Put me down as "yay genuine apologies!"

comment by Evan Rysdam · 2019-07-19T18:00:39.620Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · LW · GW

From the post:

It reminds them of an experience they might want to forget. Further, it requires them to deal with a topic they may be completely sick and tired of.

From the comment above me (emphasis mine):

Apologies communicate knowledge of harmful behavior, ideally in a way that lets the victim understand and get closure on the incident. They help in reducing attribution bias (where people assume you're a jerk, rather than a fallible human).

I'll note that this means that an apology can turn an experience one wants to forget into a completely tolerable one. If someone shows up late to a bunch of meetings and acts disrespectful while they're there, I'll be annoyed at them and find our interactions unpleasant in the future, even if don't act out anymore. But if they then say "Sorry about last week, I was having a rough time and I let my emotions get the best of me. I'm not going to act like that in the future" then the experience of "this person was a jerk, which I find unpleasant" is retroactively transformed into "this person was going through something, which happens to all of us"

comment by Slider · 2019-07-19T18:41:10.067Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think apoligies should be based on being wrong. I am not super sure which is a better basis but I am going to say that being "unreasonable" is better basis. The default case might be that people demand others to follow their view. Thus being wrong makes a demand often unreasonable. But if you don't make a demand it can't be unsreasonable and you can be reasonably wrong. I think if you are "merely" wrong you should aknowledge that but you need not and should not apoligise for it. I think "mistaken" refers to this situation.

And it's possible to be unreasonable by being right. Or right and wrong have rings in my mind that are close to "true" and "false" but in this context "socially permissible" is more relevant (right in the sense of "duty and right"). If someone is ugly, and you say they are ugly, trying to get out of apoligising by referring that your statement is true is not a super relevant defence. "But hey he is" means more of "I should be allowed to bash this person". A more relevant defence would be that you did not try to lower the targets social status or hurt their feelings ie it was not a bash. In general if the conflict depends on you being correct or incorrect there are issues beside technical accuracy that you need to worry about.

I have been dealing with a situation where a person would reflexively apoligise to me. I learned to ask what they were apoligising about and when the person could not state it made the apology not work for me. "Apologise for that" needs the "that" be sufficiently understood and it's possible that you think everybody knows what it refers to without the party giving the apology knowing what it means. Apology atleast to me means that you are willing and equipped in a future situation to avoid the occurrence of what just happens. The action can be false if you do not have the capcity to recognise what similar situations would be or how you could do differently in them. The most common assumption is that the party is unwilling to do so or was not aware that another had wishes about their action.

comment by Evan Rysdam · 2019-07-19T18:11:41.176Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm putting this in a separate comment from my reply to Dagon, though it's a similar thought to Dagon's first paragraph. From the post:

If you apologise, it should be because it helps prevent or mend a rift with the other person. You should be extremely cautious about apologising because that's what you think a nice person would do, as those are precisely the situations where you are likely to end up apologising with no benefit to anyone.

I don't think there are many scenarios where an apology wouldn't help mend a rift with someone. Unless maybe you mean giving multiple apologies for the same action? To me, a first apology would serve a person very well in 99% of cases. (I can think of maybe one case from my personal life where I wouldn't be interested in an apology.) Of course, other people might be different.

Also, consider the balance of outcomes. An unnecessary apology is an inconvenience to me; if someone has sinned against me so badly that an apology doesn't do anything, the difference between an additional inconvenience and no additional inconvenience is nothing. But if I consider an apology necessary, the difference between making it and skipping is big, and sometimes it's huge. So, while I agree with the shape of what you're saying ("some apologies are worse than nothing") I wouldn't advise anyone to be "extremely cautions about apologizing". Quite the contrary, I'd advise extreme caution about not apologizing -- that needs to be saved for when you're sure the situation is unsalvageable.

comment by Chris_Leong · 2019-07-19T23:30:49.054Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

"You should be extremely cautious about apologising because that's what you think a nice person would do" - I edited in a "when it's" to make it clearer. I only suggesting being careful about apologising based on a particular motivation.