Sorry’s not good enough – apologies need more than words

The social convention is clear: you do something wrong, you apologise. But without examining the power dynamic behind such apologies, they can become essentially meaningless

Apologies need more than words

We humans are pretty good at lying to ourselves. We have an expert ability to rewrite events so that they are more favourable to ourselves, to believe that we really did put enough effort into that piece of work despite the reality having been far different, to grab that second biscuit having persuaded ourselves that it really won’t make much difference.

But where we are at our most deceitful is when it comes to apologies – both in giving them and in expecting them.

In giving them, we can roll out an apology for so many reasons other than actually being sorry: to simply put an end to a feud that has grown tiresome, to feel morally superior, as an act of passive aggression – the list goes on. But we tell ourselves that we have done the right thing – “we have apologised”.

In expecting an apology, we are fully aware of all these “fake” pleas for forgiveness but decide to accept the apology anyway, because it makes us feel like we have won. This is particularly true when demanding apologies from our own children. Say sorry, we say. They do – and we are fully aware they have little idea what sorry means, and we know full well that it won’t make much difference. But the social convention has been ticked and, frankly, the housework won’t do itself and you just want this particular scuffle done and dusted.

Underpinning all of these apology scenarios is, of course, power. And that is why apologies are so complicated. Both the person apologising and the person receiving the apology have equal claim to the power advantage. This ambiguity is why we are so keen to lie to ourselves: we will accept or give an apology because we want our slice of the power cake. We cannot admit any of the caveats to an apology above, because that would see us cede power.

Put this into a school context and you can begin to see the huge problems the word sorry can bring. In our cover feature, we list multiple issues with apologies that all make the act of saying sorry problematic in an education setting. What many of the issues hint at is the power dynamic. As a teacher, demanding an apology for rudeness, for example, should see your power restored. But if the student apologises and everyone knows it is insincere, who holds the power then? The student has won – the conflict has been resolved using social convention but not in reality. One gets what Peter Fonagy, head of psychology and language science at University College London, calls “pretend mode” – which makes relationships unravel fast.

What becomes apparent in this apology dynamic is how important it is that we do not get trapped in a cognitive science bubble when it comes to research. Humans are complex social beings and the act of teaching requires us to better understand human nature for practice to be successful. Cognitive science is useful – but it presumes a very static and cold form of humanity. Only in combination with the huge swathe of sociology and behavioural research – and with a teacher’s intuition based on countless interactions with complex children – can that science be made relevant. If your relationship with a student is in tatters, it does not matter one jot that you have managed to identify their Goldilocks spot for cognitive load. That porridge may be just right, but no one’s going to be eating it.

As every teacher knows, relationships are vital and apologies play an important part in them. Saying sorry is powerful but only when it is sincere. It’s hard when you’re wrong and harder still to admit it. It seems Elton John was right all along: sorry really does seem to be the hardest word.


This article originally appeared in the 4 October 2019 issue under the headline “Don’t like my leader this week? Sorry (not sorry) about it”