How to Recover From Your Most Awkward Moments

The key to handling interactions with grace: anticipating the other person’s point of view (often before they know it themselves)

bouquet of flowers
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How to: Apologize

Sorry, my mistake. It won’t happen again. Please forgive me. If such words come easily to you, you’re lucky. Most of us have to steel ourselves to apologize, sometimes because it feels as if we were fully justified in our offending behavior, other times because it is so humiliating to admit that we weren’t.

It turns out that the words you utter when apologizing are less important than the act of apologizing itself. Social psychologist Steven Scher of Eastern Illinois University has identified five main elements of apologies: 1) a simple expression of regret (“I’m sorry,” “I apologize,” or “Excuse me”); 2) an explanation or account of the cause that brought about the violation (“I forgot to call you the other day with the information”); 3) an expression of the speaker’s responsibility for the offense (“What I did was wrong”); 4) a promise of forbearance (“I promise nothing like this will happen again”); and 5) an offer of repair (“What can I do to make it up to you?”). Employing any of these strategies is better than using none, Scher has found, and the effects can be additive—the more components you include in the apology, the better. Perhaps most important, make it genuine: Insincere apologies can be worse than none at all, found psychologist Jeanne Zechmeister and colleagues at Chicago’s Loyola University.

Who Knew? Sexism of Sorry
Women do apologize more than men but not for the reasons you think, say social psychologists Karina Schumann and Michael Ross of the University of Waterloo, in Ontario. “Our findings suggest that men apologize less frequently than women not because their egos are more fragile but because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.”

Next: How to persuade others »

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