Tag Archives: apologizing

Modeling Behavior: Apologizing



As someone who is mostly and usually human, I make mistakes. Somedays, you could fill a pretty big bucket with them and other days maybe a rocks glass. Ok, most days you could fill a bucket. Sometimes, I make little mistakes, other days I make giant, non-refundable ones. So, I have to suck it up buttercup and apologize.

I made an apology worthy error this spring with a graduate student. I was unaware of this at the time and a colleague mentioned it to me. I apologized twice on this one. I first apologized to my colleague, saying there was no excuse for my behavior and noting I would address the student as soon as I could. I then did something else.

I thanked my colleague. 

Not for pointing out something I did wrong or putting me on blast, but for being kind enough to let me know that I had unintentionally made a mistake. I was clueless. My colleague and I had a good talk and we both walked away without any hard feelings. I don’t know always know how people respond to me and not everyone takes me the same way. I get that.

The student was equally pleasant to address. My apologies are simple. I make no excuses for my prior behavior and I assume 100% of the responsibility.

“I’m sorry  I made you feel ______. That was unacceptable behavior and I will do my best not to do that again. I try to model the behavior that I want from my students so I hope you will forgive me when you’re ready.”

The student was gracious. The interaction lasted a few minutes and it was done.

The art of apologizing is really very simple.

  1. DO: Address the issue in person. Over the phone if you physically cannot meet. Text apologies or email apologies are only good for small things–typo’s or a slip in reading a calendar. If you apologize over a text, you’re not really apologizing and you didn’t really mean it to begin with, especially if it’s important (it usually is), and something bigger than the “i’m running 10 min. late.”
  2. DO: Keep it simple. The best apologies are the most simply crafted. They’re not novels.
  3. DO: Refrain from “if” or “but” statements in your apology or defending your action. Those two words imply you’re not actually sorry or that you’re trying to place the blame back on the person. This never works. “I’m sorry but…..” but what? You’re acknowledging you made a mistake, so if you’re really apologizing, don’t relinquish responsibility or minimize it to devalue how the other person feels. Even if you don’t use “if” or “but” you can still half ass it by getting defensive-grammar isn’t the caveat, it’s your message.
  4. DO: Understand it’s a one sided communication. I acknowledged my mistake and guilt and left it at that. I asked NOTHING of the person in return and did not try to make a single excuse for my mistake.
  5. DO: Give it time. The person might not respond. Ever. And that’s going to have to be ok. I acknowledged people’s feelings, owned what I did, and moved forward.

Don’t believe me? Google “the art of an apology” and see what pops up. Even better, I got a TON of practice in my 20’s when I was teaching because I screwed up all of the time!  I found the best apology strategy was: acknowledgement, acceptance, stating it, and moving forward. Students can be moody and need time to process, just like adults. I have yet to have a student come back around after a proper apology.

The other thing: modeling the behavior I want to see. As a professor, I’ve got eyes watching me always. If I’m mentoring grad students, undergrad researchers, or anyone, I want to model the behavior I would like to see from them. Owning my mistakes, apologizing, and being sincere are three impactful and important things for students to see so they can model it in the future when they make a mistake. I don’t go mouthing off intentionally so everyone can see me apologize ;~)

What does a half-hearted apology sound like? “I’m sorry about _____ but I didn’t do ______ so just to let you know….” You can fill in the blanks and get the picture. Someone didn’t think they did anything wrong, they want to clear THEIR conscience-not your feelings- and honestly: THEY DON’T REALLY WANT TO APOLOGIZE.

I’ve received those too and so will you. As someone who works with students almost each and every day, it’s important to me to not just model behavior, but to hold myself to that standard as well. It’s an excellent reminder that we’re all human, we make mistakes, but how we rebound from them is equally important.

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Sorry I’m not sorry….

You’ve heard that before?  It’s a hashtag on twitter and it’s what many of us think sometimes when we apologize in academia because we think it’s the “right” thing to do. I’ve got a newsflash for you ladies out there.  APOLOGIZING IS KILLING YOU PROFESSIONALLY.  stop it!!!! This applies to men too, but women for sure.

As a female in academia, I’ve met some over apologizers and some cut throats.  I admire the cut throat women.  Why? Because they take no prisoners.  They’re not mean about it. They just never apologize.  While I work with them I think, “dang, I need to be more like that.” Then, I got meet with an over apologizer and you know what, I end up pitying them.  I think that they apologize because they’re insecure, insincere, or like a puppy: cute, cuddly, motherly, marshmallow. Period. Be a marshmallow sometimes, just not all of the time.

Don’t believe me?  Fine. Have it your way…..I’m not sorry, but I am going to give you a few examples:

Fox news: you can bash me for using a Fox news link here, but not for the content because if you read it, it makes some good points.  It also has some good links off of it to other sources.

I also enjoyed this opinion piece off of politicsdaily. Why? Because this woman is right. We apologize for everything. And for what?  Just like facebook has changed how we view a “friend,” our zest for apologizing when the sun doesn’t come out also waters down the meaning of an apology.  People don’t take it seriously, they view it as superficial, and without meaning.  Just like Fairbrother says, you’re cheapening your value as a female, an academic, and your overall value when you insist on saying ‘sorry.’

What can you say instead?  “I appreciate your patience,” “I agree, the weather is awful today (insert appropriate response to someones complaint),” “Let’s keep working on this together and we will reach a resolution,” “Let’s discuss your concern,” “I hope your day improves after we’re done here.”  You get the idea.  Turn the negative into a positive.  A student got lost finding my office and was 15 minutes late.  I had another meeting and I left.  He emailed me later in the day explaining that he had gotten lost.  We rescheduled and when he found me the second time, he began by saying that I had a difficult office to find.  Instead of starting with “I’m sorry,” I started with, “I’m glad you found it and we could work out this time to meet instead.”

A grad student stopped by my office to talk about a facebook comment.  He told me I hadn’t read the whole article (it was not research related, it was pop culture in nature) and instead of apologizing I countered with, “I guess I didn’t have time to read every single word, you have more time than I do.”  No apologies.  You know why?  I can’t give the undergrad a map and a tracking device.  I wasn’t all that invested in the facebook thread to begin with. The bottom line: THESE PROBLEMS AREN’T MY PROBLEM.  They shouldn’t be yours either (they’re non-problems). In the case of having to apologize, I did it once, with sincerity, and was done apologizing and started taking care of business.

I apologized for my fender bender in the university van. ONCE. IN PERSON. FACE TO FACE. TO MY BOSS. ONCE MORE TO FLEET SERVICES. IN PERSON. FACE TO FACE. Done apologizing. I went back, filled out the proper paperwork, and finished with, “I hope to not have this experience again.”  I forgot to add a colleague to a paper in grad school, he called me on it.  I had totally forgot–it was not intentional.  I apologized to him when he confronted me, explained it was an honest snafu, and moved on.

Stand with me (male or female) and quit freaking apologizing!!!!

We might be addicted to apologizing.  As women, it’s our nature.  It’s a tough habit to break, but it is doable.  Like exercise, eating correctly, and saying the word “um,” we need to be mindful of it to catch ourselves from doing it.

You can break the cycle.  You are a smart, sophisticated, intelligent being and gosh darn it, people like you.  So, stop apologizing yourself to death and get to work!

*my soapbox is packed back up and put safely away. i need a piece of chocolate…..*

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