Just as it’s important to know how to apologize, it’s important to know how to receive one. Saying the wrong thing after someone has apologized to you can make the person apologize feel like you’re dismissing their attempt to make things right between the pair of you. Make this mistake often enough, and you’re creating a climate where apologies aren’t offered because they’re considered meaningless exchanges. Alternatively, the way that you accept an apology can unintentionally communicate to the person apologizing that their actions were perfectly acceptable (when they were not), or worse, that they had no effect on you at all (when they did). You never want to create the impression that you weren’t offended if you were, but you also don’t want to dismiss someone’s attempt to apologize to you when they’ve worked to acknowledge that they’ve done something offensive.
Always say thank you
Even if you’re still livid at the person, thank them for apologizing to you. Make it the first thing you say, if you can’t think of anything else to say. This lets the person know that, even if you’re still angry at them, you appreciate that they recognize they’ve done something to upset you. You might not feel very appreciative as you say it, but eventually, you’ll feel better for them having apologized than you will if they never do.
Assume they’re sincere
Nothing is worse than apologizing to someone and then being laughed at. We all know what it’s like to know that we’ve done something wrong, and to feel reluctant to apologize because we don’t want to admit that we were wrong. It’s a big step for people, especially stubborn people, to humble themselves and to make themselves vulnerable to your scrutiny by apologizing. So assume that the person in sincere, even if he/she doesn’t sound as sincere as you’d like them to. Either they are sincere, and they’ll be relieved that you didn’t take the opportunity to attack them while they were vulnerable, or they weren’t sincere, and trying to guilt them into being more sincere is only going to create more problems than solve. If they weren’t sincere, they’ll either never be sincere and be more justified in their behavior because of your negative reaction, or they’ll learn to regret their actions/words in their own time. Don’t negate the opportunity of the latter just for the satisfaction of needling them.
Wait until they’ve finished before you speak
In the article where I address how to apologize, I make a point to say that the conversation where you apologize really shouldn’t be the conversation where you also try to justify your actions. While that’s true, as someone receiving an apology, you’ll have to bear in mind that 1) not everyone reads the articles posted on Submissive Guide and won’t have read my super-awesome-highly-qualified-and-insightful-opinions on what makes a good apology, and 2) not everyone is a great communicator.
Understand, too, that the word “apology” used to mean “justification” or “reasoning words” (it comes from Apollo, the god of reason, and “log” which means word). It may have been a long, long while since the Greek philosophers invented the idea of apologies, but there’s still a certain amount of cultural residue that gives most people the impression that their apology should go hand-in-hand with their reasons for why they felt justified in doing what they were doing.
Do your best to hear the person out, from start to finish. Even if the reason that they give for what they’ve done makes no sense to you, understand that, ultimately, the reason why they did what they did isn’t important. What matters is that they recognize they’ve done or said something to upset you.
Be Careful with your words
This is especially if the person apologizing has gone through an extensive amount of words to explain something that you completely disagree with. When accepting an apology, it’s important that you make the distinction of what you’re actually accepting. If your partner is apologizing for being rude to you because a blue kangaroo tap-danced on his/her car and now the cheeseburger is underdone, it’s perfectly possible to let him/her know you accept that they didn’t mean to be rude without letting them know that the aforementioned reason makes it okay for him/her to be rude to you.
When in doubt, go with a formula: [cause/effect].
“Thank you for apologizing. I appreciate that you recognized that the way you spoke to me upset me. Maybe the next time the kangaroo jumps on your car and ruins your cheeseburger, we can talk about it before we’re both frustrated.”
Silly example aside, the response does a couple of things: 1) You reinforce that apologizing isn’t a waste of the person’s time. 2) You show that you appreciate that the person took the time to recognize they did something to upset you. 3) You reiterate exactly what about the exchange was offensive and how it affected you. 4) You open up a discussion for why the person’s reason doesn’t make his/her response appropriate, and allow the conversation to turn toward how to avoid the issue in the future.
Forgiveness vs. Acceptance
There a difference between accepting an apology and forgiving someone for his/her actions. The former means that you understand that the person is sorry for what they’ve done. It means that you’re still hurt by his/her choices, and that you’ll still carry that hurt with you, but ultimately, you understand that they do want to make the situation better, and that they are sincere in offering their apology. Forgiving someone, on the other hand, means that it’s water under the bridge. You accept their apology, but in addition to that, you hold no hard feelings; it’s your way of telling that person that you’re happy to move on, to forget the incident and never bring it up again, and that you’ll do your best to treat your relationship like the wrong-doing never happened. It’s the emotional equivalent of saying, “May bad,” or “It’s fine,” when someone bumps into you in the supermarket and apologizes.
I’m going to be a little contrary here: if you don’t think that you can forgive someone, if you know that you won’t be able to look at a person without thinking about how they hurt you, then don’t use the words “I forgive you” when accepting their apology. Maybe it’s the linguist in me, and maybe it’s just meaningless syntax to most people, but forgiving someone is more profound than accepting someone’s apology. To me, accepting an apology is surface level; it’s acknowledging that the person who has wronged you understands that they’ve wronged you, and it’s communicating with that person that you understand they regret having hurt you. Forgiving someone, on the other hand, is the equivalent of saying that you’ve erased the incident from your memory. It means that you won’t bring up the incident in the future, you won’t hold them accountable passed the apology they’ve presented, that you’ve freed them from the obligation of trying to make up their actions to you in any way. If you know that you’re going to hold a grudge, don’t forgive someone. It’s not fair to that person to be told that they’re forgiven, but to have to worry about whether or not you’ll bring it up in an argument three months down the road.
On the other hand, as my mother would say, the last thing that you want in life is to have the opportunity to genuinely forgive someone and to lose that opportunity later. Granted, she was talking to her three children and trying to stress the rather morbid point that if one of us died before the other forgave us, the surviving sibling would live their whole life knowing that she didn’t forgive her sister for stealing a Barbie doll, but the reason behind the statement is still completely valid. In the grand scheme, holding a grudge might feel productive for a time, but it’s rarely, if ever, worth the possibility that you’ll lose the person you’re angry at, and lose the opportunity to forgive him/her later on.
Accepting apologies can be as difficult as giving them: not just because our emotions can get in the way, but because sometimes we find ourselves confronted by unnecessary apologies. The next and final article in the series is going to address how to accept an apology when you don’t think one is necessary (and why these apologies are important to accept, regardless).
In the meantime, think about the last time you had to accept an apology from someone. Did it go well? If so, what did you do? If not, what could you have done differently?