Journalist and author Marjorie Ingall is a co-founder of SorryWatch, a blog that analyzes both effective and botched apologies in news, media, history and literature. Ingall and her co-blogger, Susan McCarthy, also offer a list of dos and don’ts for successful apologies. As a prime example, they note that using the passive voice is a big disqualifier when apologizing—a person needs to own the actions and consequences attached to a given apology. The two women further advise that it’s important to say the actual words, “I’m sorry,” as opposed to “I regret.”
As Ingall recently told JewishBoston, “An apology needs to stand on its own feet and be unconditional, even if you think the other person owes you an apology.”
A winning combination of directness and insight mixed with dashes of humor, SorryWatch attracts 15,000 visitors a month. Ingall shared more about the important art of apologizing below.
What led you to create a site dedicated to the dos and don’ts of apologizing?
It was Susan’s idea. She wrote an article for Salon about bad apologies that went viral. It’s also something you think about and write about every High Holiday season if you’re a Jewish journalist. We started the blog in 2012. When you’re raising children, you think about how you teach them to apologize, how you instill a real sense of right and wrong as opposed to rote answers. As somebody who is very connected to her Jewishness, I think about apologies a lot.
I also received a good apology before we started doing the blog from a former boyfriend with whom I had a bad breakup. I hadn’t heard from him in years, and one day I got a card in the mail from him. At the time, I thought he didn’t really listen when I was trying to make him a better person. But he wrote that he was sorry for being a bad boyfriend. He said that having dated me was going to make him a better husband. It was so lovely because it came out of nowhere. The most beautiful apology is one you don’t expect, and one that is clearly not seeking a response.
We’re in the Jewish season of apology. What has Jewish tradition taught you about offering a good apology?
When you’re talking about parenting, nobody did it better than Dr. Spock. When you’re talking about offering an apology, no one did it better than Maimonides. Tradition says you’re supposed to try and apologize three times. Our tradition notes that this notion of holding on to your venom and rage after receiving an apology is like holding on to a lizard while going into the mikveh. In this era of gaslighting, I’m wary of saying that someone needs to forgive someone. I would say you aren’t obligated, even though Maimonides would say you’re obligated. And I would further say that you’re not obligated when someone has genuinely wronged you.
What are some of the elements of an effective apology?
Maimonides says to state clearly what you did wrong and show remorse. You cannot just say, “I’m sorry.” Also, regret is not an apology, but a description of what you feel. Apologizing is what the other person feels. State what you did. It’s much more taxing upon the apologizer to do that, but it’s important. “I am sorry I did X, Y and Z.” Show the other person you understand what you did. Specificity is very important. You need to take responsibility for your apology. This means not presenting extenuating circumstances like, “I was tired.” You need to understand the impact of what you did and know what to do to make amends. It can be something as simple as asking to pay for the dry cleaning. Or it can be as complicated as showing your ignorance about something. You can say you’re sorry you spoke up without all the information at your disposal. Maimonides would add to make sure you won’t repeat the sin.
Can you point to examples of effective apologies?
An example of a perfect apology came from one of the executives responsible for the Columbia space shuttle launch that exploded. He took full responsibility for the tragedy, even though a lot of people worked on the launch. He made it about himself in his apology. People initially blamed a manufacturing defect, but it was not. They simply hadn’t tested the part with a full fuel tank. This man went to the factory where they made the part in question to apologize to the factory workers for taking the heat. He told them the explosion was his fault, not theirs. It was a brilliant apology.
Another good apology recently in the news came from a Holocaust survivor who forgave a German publicly. One of the reasons we feel so passionately about hearing good apology stories is because we want to live in a world where humans strive to connect authentically. Apologies are part of a larger way of being in the world.
What about apologies in the political arena?
I think a lot about apologies in leadership. We have a president who has been explicit about the fact that he doesn’t apologize. It’s a very important thing for Trump not to apologize. Apologizing is seen as being weak. Kamala Harris won’t apologize for what she did as a prosecutor. Another point to note is that the news cycle moves so quickly. If you’re not immediately sorry, you’re going to prolong whatever it is you’re apologizing about.
What are some of the elements of an unsuccessful apology?
If you’re not sorry, don’t apologize because you will do it badly. You also cannot ask for forgiveness in an apology. Forgiveness is a gift for the wronged person to grant. You don’t ask for a gift.
You also have to be careful with a face-to-face apology, especially in the workplace. A face-to-face apology can be intimidating for the wrong person, making something into an even bigger deal. Email is the best for something like that. As the kids like to say, you have to read the room.