There was an interesting story by Shankar Vedantam on NPR’s All Things Considered this morning about a new study on apologies: “Why Not Apologizing Makes You Feel Better.” Most of us have been given to believe that apologizing makes things better for the apologizer as well as the apologizee, but participants in this study tended to feel better about themselves when they flat out refused to apologize.
From that factoid we might begin to think that apologizing isn’t such a great idea after all–until we start digging a little deeper. Of course, if not apologizing makes a person feel more empowered, then it makes perfect sense that it’s often hard to get people to apologize even in life-or-death situations, like when two ethnic groups can’t make peace because one won’t apologize for what they’ve done to the other.
So feeling better in the short term is all very nice, but in the longer term not apologizing hurts relationships, loses support and understanding, and creates grudges.
That alone might be enough to keep us in the apologizing mindset, but another fact is especially striking: the people who aren’t willing to apologize tend to be the people who are more insecure or who feel more threatened in the first place. So apologizing may make us feel less empowered, but it tends to mean that we already are more empowered.
To put it another way, apologizing makes us vulnerable, and as Brené Brown points out in the TED talk I mentioned in my last post, we tend to feel like vulnerability makes us weaker–and yet other people often see voluntarily vulnerability as strength.
Not to beat this idea to death, but there are some clear illustrations in what we know about body language. If you’re feeling relaxed and confident, you’re likely to leave the front of your body exposed, physically more vulnerable to harm, by not crossing your arms or holding your hands together. The “crossed arms in front of chest” pose and even the “clasped hands in front of genitals” pose are often used as though they’re “power positions,” yet what they actually communicate–and we tend to pick up on this subconsciously, even if we don’t consciously–is insecurity. If you’re interested, take a look at some of my other articles on body language for more information.
Fun post trivia: in looking for a picture to include with this post, I couldn’t find any clear, Creative Commons-licensed picture of someone apologizing for something. The closest I was able to come was this picture of people doing general apologies to people they didn’t know for no reason having to do with themselves, while wearing paper bags over their heads. (Thanks, Neal Jennings!)