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Ask Amy: How Do I Make Someone Apologize?


Earlier this month, Ginni Thomas left a voicemail for Anita Hill, where she asked Hill to apologize for accusations she had made about Clarence Thomas 20 years ago in the course of his confirmation for a seat on the United States Supreme Court. Politics aside, the way Ms. Thomas demanded the apology left many surprised.

Amy Dickinson knows well the art and diplomacy of the mea culpa. She writes the syndicated column Ask Amy for the Chicago Tribune. And while people often ask her for the best way to say I'm sorry, there's also the other oft-asked question, how to get an apology. So are you still waiting for that I'm sorry? Have you tried asking? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You could also join the conversation at our website. It's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Amy Dickinson joins us from a studio in Philadelphia. Nice to have you on the program again.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And demanding an apology on a phone message doesn't seem like it would work very often, and certainly it did not for Ginni Thomas.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, when you think about it, the way she did this is sort of classic. She didn't actually demand an apology. If I recall, she was offering Anita Hill the opportunity to apologize for something that Anita Hill obviously doesn't think she did. Now, Anita Hill, I felt, responded very correctly in saying, I have nothing to apologize for. What she could've done would be to bat the ball back and offer a non-apology that goes like this: I'm sorry you're upset, you know, because that's something that people tend to do, is they duck out of an apology by just mainly reflecting the person's feelings back at them.

CONAN: Or if I offended anybody, I'm terribly sorry.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. Right.

CONAN: Yeah. But I didn't...

Ms. DICKINSON: But, you know...

CONAN: Yeah, I didn't actually intend to.

Ms. DICKINSON: When you think about it, apologizing starts in early childhood. And children, of course, have such a finely tuned sense of justice. When we teach a child to apologize, it's there's a ritual involved. You know, you say, I want you to say I'm sorry to your sister, and then you lead them up. The child says I'm sorry, and then the child waits. And the other child says, okay. You know, there's a ritual to it. It's really important that it be offered in a specific way and that the person then acknowledge, you know, the person has to acknowledge that they have been apologized to.

CONAN: And also, every once in a while, a parent has to say, and I want you to mean it when you say I'm sorry.

Ms. DICKINSON: And this is why one thing I like that some parents do, is they'll say they'll ask their children to shake hands. They'll ask their children to hug sometimes, and I think that's good. It sort of punctuates what's just happened.

CONAN: So the things we learn in childhood are often not so easy, easily applied when we grow up.

Ms. DICKINSON: How quickly we forget. And I think it's very important for adults to learn how to apologize. Of course the best apology is offered very quickly and sincerely and simply. For instance, you say I am so sorry, I apologize. That's one way. Another way is to say, I can't believe I just said that, or, I don't know what I was thinking when I said that. I hope you can forgive me. You know, this is, like, best done very, very quickly after someone has offended another person.

CONAN: But every once in a while you've got something that's gone on for, in this case, 20 years.

Ms. DICKINSON: I know. And actually, this happens so often within families, where I will get a letter to my column. I'm surprised at how often I get letters from people who want me to give them the words so that they can demand and then get an apology many, many, many years later for an affront that happened a long time ago.

And I actually don't think that demanding apologies works. For instance, if you demand something and then you receive it, it's probably not very satisfying. You've demanded it. But one way to sort of maybe get an apology if you think you're owed one is to say - instead of you need to need to apologize to me, is I'd really like to talk about what happened. You're opening it up as a topic and you're giving the person some latitude and leeway. And the other person may choose to say, I know, I know, I - when I think about that, I can imagine how you must have felt. I'm very sorry. It's like it's a general agreement to discuss it as a topic.

CONAN: But sometimes saying I'm sorry includes an admission that I was therefore wrong and that something needs to be done to correct what happened all that time ago.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. And you have to this is why - you know, obviously Anita Hill has no intention of apologizing. As she said, I feel I did nothing to apologize for. So if you open it up as a more of a general topic, you can discuss it without maybe an apology even coming up. You can just air the issue together. And you know, I think it's possible to say I realize how terribly I hurt you.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: You know, that's an acknowledgment of how a person is feeling.

CONAN: (Unintelligible)

Ms. DICKINSON: Go ahead.

CONAN: I just wanted to get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with Ask Amy's Amy Dickinson about soliciting and receiving apologies. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Mary, Mary is calling us from Antelope in California.

MARY (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MARY: Yeah. I had a gentleman that I worked for for six years, and we have an absolutely great relationship. People used to say we were like brother and sister. We had a lot of fun. And then the last year, it became a very hostile environment, and I just couldn't work there anymore. I didn't want to continue to take the abuse. It wasn't from him. It was from other co-workers and its just a bad situation. And I moved on. But when I told him I was leaving, he it was like leaving a marriage. He yelled and screamed for about 20 minutes, called me all kinds of names. And I just took it and I left.

And about two weeks later, I came back because we've been so closed and I said, you know, I just really wanted to talk about the way that you treated me. I said it was really hurtful and I really think you owe me an apology. And he said, well, I wasn't really mad. Oh, no, no. And he never really apologized. And to this day we occasionally run into each other professionally and he acts like nothing ever happened.

CONAN: And...

MARY: And it's something I've carried around for about eight years.

Ms. DICKINSON: Wow, Mary, I feel like you you're so evolved, like you did everything right. I wonder if maybe when you said you owe me an apology you may have put him on the defensive. And of course he is - behaved terribly, so there's no question about that. But if you said I'd like to talk about that, I want you to know how hurt and disappointed I've been...

CONAN: Do you think...

Ms. DICKINSON: ...and then you wait, and you see what the person says.

CONAN: Yeah. Is it too late even now to go back, the next time you meet, on one of those professional occasions, say you know, I - I still can't get over what happened that day and how hurtful it was?

MARY: I probably could. I don't know if Id really have the guts to do it. I kind of have just tried to let it go and just and I agree with Amy. I mean, I realize now having listened for a little while here that the one thing I probably shouldn't have said was I really feel you owe me an apology.

CONAN: Well...

MARY: I definitely learned. I appreciate that.

Ms. DICKINSON: Even though he absolutely did owe you an apology. But sometimes when you throw it out there, if someone behaves badly enough that they, you know, owe you an apology, there's a chance they're going to behave badly again when you ask for the apology.

CONAN: And here's an email from Jackie(ph) in Tucson, exactly on that point. It seems to me an apology isn't worth much if you have to ask for it. So...

MARY: Very true.

CONAN: Mary, good luck.

MARY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go to this email from Ross. My stepfather beat my mother and me up about 40 years ago when I was only 15. He has never apologized for that. At times, since then, he's been a model father. At other times he's regressed into his past drunken behavioral patterns. Recently, with the help of more than a couple of beers, I imagine, he said he loved me. But I still want a spoken apology. And she wonders what your, your comments might be.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, actually, I wonder if you could get even an acknowledgement. I mean, wouldn't that feel good to at least have the person acknowledge that his behavior that he did, in fact, do these things and that his behavior was so damaging. You know, I don't know sometimes about even receiving apologies from people who are abusive. Sometimes, honestly, abusers will seek out someone they've abused and attempt to apologize. But it's really - what it is, it's a way to exert some power. Sometimes it's very, very tricky.

I can completely understand wanting an apology. But I wonder if just an acknowledgement would go towards what I assume that this person wants to try and move on and maybe even forgive this abusive behavior. But that would be hard to do as well, certainly without any acknowledgment.

CONAN: Is it different when it's a person or when it's an institution if you're angry at a school for the way the school failed to protect you or something like that in the past when you were little? And is it appropriate to ask the institution for an apology?

Ms. DICKINSON: Boy, I've never really even thought about that. I'm trying to think of times when institutions have well, maybe like the Air Force Academy, which has had problems. They...

CONAN: Mm-hmm. With sexual harassment and other things, yes.

Ms. DICKINSON: But again, that's an acknowledgement and it's yeah. I think, actually, institutional apologies can work. Certainly when they're wrapped up with an acknowledgment of what was done wrong and how they failed specific people, absolutely.

CONAN: It might be difficult because then its an admission of liability, perhaps.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right...

CONAN: And the lawyers might not let them say it.

Ms. DICKINSON: But you know, we all think about Nelson Mandela and the movement that he sort of spearheaded as a way to reconcile, you know, the racial heartache of South Africa. And it really is a model of sort of bringing people in and asking them to acknowledge what theyve done and then very quickly offering forgiveness. It's really very challenging to do.

CONAN: We're talking with Amy Dickinson of Ask Amy about how to, hopefully, get an acknowledgement or an admission of an apology. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Christina(ph), Christina with us from Pompano Beach in Florida.

CHRISTINA (Caller): Hi there. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

CHRISTINA: Well, I had something that was still kind of fresh in my memory that I wanted to bring up. My husband and myself are going through a divorce right now. And he recently, towards the end of the relationship, had become very verbally abusive. And we had an incident where the dog got lost for an hour and a half. We love this dog. And Im looking for the dog, up on a ladder, and my husband came and punched me on the side - oh, you stupid, you stupid - knocked me down off the ladder. It wasn't on purpose to knock me down, but I got no apology for that. And I asked him, you know, the next day, the day after, I was like, look, you hurt me (unintelligible) like, you know, you could say you're sorry. And I was actually given you deserved it. And I really didn't receive any form of verbal apology until his actions came out and he started to show, like, you know, remorse through his actions rather than through words.


CHRISTINA: You know, I kind of just let it slide and, you know, by the way, I treated him back, let him know that I was very hurt by it because the demand of an apology did not work. It was, you know, like you asked for it (unintelligible) you know?

CONAN: When you said he indicated by his actions that he was sorry, what do you mean by that?

CHRISTINA: He would - I woke up in the morning, he was crying and he was hugging me while I was sleeping and, you know, showing remorse...

CONAN: Okay.

CHRISTINA: (Unintelligible) he was sorry and truly sorry on his own without saying, you know, I shouldn't have done that, I'm sorry, when I asked for him to. He had to come to it on his own, thinking that it was wrong.


Ms. DICKINSON: And actually that's a good example of how sometimes asking for or demanding something that we call an apology doesn't necessarily work. It's like we want to write the script for the other person and they have their own script. Where maybe if you say, wow, I feel so - I'm devastated. I'm so hurt by your actions and I'm so heartbroken. And then you let the other person basically say I, you know, I see that, I recognize it. I'm really, really sorry that happened. I'm sorry I was at fault. You know, it - you're not feeding them the words, you're not demanding an apology, but what you're saying is you're being very, very, very honest about how you feel.

CONAN: Christina, good luck.

CHRISTINA: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from April(ph) in Charlottesville in Virginia. My father abandoned our family when I was a child. I'm now in my late 30s. A few years ago I reconnected with him. In my first communications with him, I let him know how deeply I was affected and hurt by his abandonment. He was kind enough and seemed genuinely happy to have me in his life again, but he has never apologized. I have tried to let it go, but the need to hear an apology - but need to hear an apology. I'm trying to let his actions speak for how he feels. If by his behavior I know he understands how he hurt me and genuinely tries to make amends for it going forward, that will suffice for me.

So again, trying to find some sort of closure by observing somebody's actions rather than their words.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. And honey, my father did the exact same thing to me. And I'm glad I didn't - I haven't spent a lot of time chasing an apology because I sort of - here's how I see it. The kind of guy who's going to ditch his family is not the kind of guy who's going to step up and say exactly what you need him to say. But my old man and I have to come a nice, a nice point where we just get along. We get along really well. And - but I'm really glad that I have not held out for him to say specific words that he's not capable of saying, frankly.

CONAN: Here's Mickey(ph) from South Fort Myers, who writes: 10 years ago I left my beautiful alcoholic husband because he was totally out of control. To my surprise, he called last month to apologize for messing up a good thing. I dont know if the apology counts. He was drunk at the time. I believe if you love a person, apologies are not necessary.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, I disagree very, very much, because I am, like all of us, I'm in - myself in a lot of different kinds of relationships, with siblings and parents, and I have a husband who, I have to say, taught me a lot about apologizing by being so good at it. And what a great way to turn the page. If something happens and you feel bad and the person says, oh, I can't believe I did that, I'm so, so sorry, please forgive me - you're done.

CONAN: Amy, we're done. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I'm sorry.

CONAN: Me too. Amy Dickinson writes the syndicated column Ask Amy for the Chicago Tribune. She's also the author of "The Mighty Queens of Freeville" and joined us from AudioPost's studios in Philadelphia. Thanks, as always, Amy.

Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you, Neal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.