I was chatting to a guy friend about a party I had been to. At the back of my mind a vague tense expectation was building up. And sure enough, like a few times before, in response to my story, he asked a joking question with a reference to my heritage. “You’re at it again with your jokes!” I exploded. “What, not good?” he asked, clearly surprised, but with a twinkle. “Listen, I know you don’t mean anything by it, but these aren’t funny to me anymore, OK?” “OK, OK.”
I was both fuming and concentrating on not taking the experience home with me. Maybe I had tried one too many times to laugh it off, politely say I didn’t share the joke, answer seriously, change the subject or turn the joke back on him. Coming up with tactics was becoming a little tiring. As it happens in these cases, there came a point when my cup was simply full and it overflowed.
For some reason I was expecting a verbal apology the next time we met or some kind of use of the word ‘sorry’. I actually imagined short speeches or messages in my mind that would start with “I thought about what I said/ my behaviour/ those silly jokes” etc. I imagined myself listening and saying elegantly, but firmly, “I appreciate you saying that. Just don’t do it again.” But nothing of the kind happened.
Instead, there was the usual friendly hello when we ran in to each other soon after, and over the course of a workday a message with a link to a funny, well-made video about an artist I like, with the simple “For you” accompanying it. Only someone who remembered what I talked about would have sent me that.
I think that was the apology, in another way than I expected. No sarcasm, no undertones, just cheerful reaching out. And there have been no more jokes of the kind that I asked not to make.
The whole episode got me thinking about men and women’s perceptions and executions of apologies. I’ve so far had a lifelong and deep relationship with saying sorry. It’s something I used to do a little too much. I also say thank you a lot, so maybe I was just British in my past life. Over the years I’ve gotten a handle on the over-apologizing, limiting myself to doing it for real if I have to, with a controlled sprinkling of the politeness sorries and the worrywart sorries. The latter thankfully happens among people who know me well.
Verbalizing a sincere apology for something that I feel needs to be addressed is for me a brave thing to do. It shows that the person cares about your feelings and wants you to know about it. Also, openly acknowledging you did wrong is mature.
Be that as it may, in life you sometimes look for things a little longer, because they happen differently than the trajectory you mapped out. And I’ve noticed that most of my girlfriends and I felt the need to apologize to each other in words (whether spoken or written) after unexpected miscommunications, near fights or more sarcasm than usual. “I didn’t mean to sound like I was putting you down and I’m worried I did”, “That was a really silly thing to say, I don’t know what got it to me”, “I hope I wasn’t too abrupt”. I don’t think I would have stayed angry, when the incidents producing these apologies had to do with me, but I always appreciate the gesture.
With guys, though, the occasional frustration from me would lead to them metaphorically hiding with their tails between their legs as if they had just gotten a “Bad dog!” shouted at them. Then one of two things would happen. Either we would cross paths and I would say hi, and they would say hi back with visible relief. Or they would make a friendly overture, not addressing the thing that had gotten me mad in the first place, but not repeating the offence. And the latter is what makes all the difference, really.
Onece I myself apologized to a colleague at one of my first internships. We had worked well together for a long time. During a meeting I was irritated by something he said to me and before I thought about it, I shot back with what I later felt to be an unnecessarily sarcastic statement. When I told him this the next day, he said, “I don’t feel like you spoke out of turn, and in any case I respect you and your opinion too much for that.” I was both surprised and touched. He acted on his words all through the remainder of my internship.
Of course apologies and their reception are closely connected to the magnitude of the situations that cause them. Sometimes you do have to actually say sorry. The type of relationship you have with a person is also a prominent contributing factor regarding apologies. If someone is continuing to hurt you without anything changing, regardless of whether they apologize for it or not, you might think about whether you want this person in your life.
But actions do sometimes speak louder than words. So regarding the everyday bumps and bruises, I’ll take the ‘sorry’ and the hug from a girlfriend, and laugh over the perfectly chosen funny video from the guy.