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New Guide to Groveling: How to Say `Sorry' as if You Mean It

With apologies from Oprah, Mel and others in the spotlight, experts discuss effective regret.

October 08, 2006|Ellen Mitchell | Special to Newsday

Apologies are making headlines.

It seems everybody is saying they made a mistake. But are they saying it correctly? Are they saying enough?

Oprah Winfrey apologized to viewers for defending author James Frey, who admitted fictionalizing his memoir. Frey added a written apology to subsequent copies of the book, and in September his publisher confirmed plans to offer refunds to disgruntled readers.

Mel Gibson said he regretted his verbal tirade against the Jewish community. Tom Cruise turned up at Brooke Shields' door to express remorse over his remarks, and Pope Benedict XVI has been trying for weeks to quell the rage his comments ignited among some Muslim groups.

These are all apologies made in the world spotlight. Have they worked, or have they fallen on deaf ears? According to a book just out, whether it's an apology that resounds across the world's stage or one that is whispered pillow talk, there can be no resolution of differences unless the offender and the offended are speaking the same language of apology.

In other words, he may think, "I'm sorry" will suffice, while she's waiting to hear, "I was wrong; it won't happen again."

In their book, "The Five Languages of Apology," co-authors Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas, both marriage counselors based in North Carolina, say that unless the offender and the offended agree about what constitutes a heartfelt apology, the offering is going to smack of insincerity and fall flat.

The authors spell out five fundamental aspects, or "languages," of apology. They say most people tend to have a primary language, that being the "magic words" that speak most deeply to them.

The five are:

* Expressing regret: "I am sorry."

* Accepting responsibility: "I was wrong."

* Making restitution: "What can I do to make it right?"

* Genuinely repenting: "I'll try not to do it again."

* Requesting forgiveness: "Will you please forgive me?"

Generally, however, it takes more than one of the above to make things right. Indeed, one of the difficulties with the highly publicized apology, Chapman says, "is the person offering the apology will speak only one or two of the five apology languages, and some will hear it and say, 'I thought he was sincere,' while others will hear it and say, 'What are you talking about?' "

The book's main thrust is on the apologies of daily life, those that take place between husbands and wives, parents and children, dating couples, friends, and between social and workplace contacts.

"The need for apologies permeates all human relationships," Chapman says. "Without apologies, anger builds and pushes us to demand justice."

And, he says, in cases in which the offended person chooses to forgive someone, even if there has been no apology, the unspoken hurt will probably continue to widen the gap in their relationship.

Psychologist Theodore H. Haegele says he sees a lot of situations in his Long Island, N.Y., practice in which the offender has no idea what he or she may have done wrong, while the offended party continues to suffer. It's important for both parties to get their differences out in the open, he says, to find out whether one person did something that injured the other and then find the words that will heal the hurt.

The main thing is that the words be heartfelt, Haegele says.

Co-author Thomas suggested the book's topic after seeing examples in her practice of how apologies, or lack of them, can make or break a relationship. An event in her life illustrated the point, she says.

"I had had a damaged relationship with a friend that I wanted to repair, but she wasn't responsive," Thomas says. "I have my work, my husband, and I'm the mother of three, and so I'm a real list-maker. I started making lists of some of the different parts of apology and came up with expressing regret, accepting responsibility and genuinely repenting."

Thomas persisted through seven years of resistance from her friend, and eventually the formula worked. She and her friend have reconnected, she says. It was then that Thomas contacted Chapman, and the two set about furthering their research and expanding their language of apology.

How can you learn which "magic words" to use with a particular individual? For a family, friend or work relationship, Chapman suggests you come right out and ask the offended party, "What do you want to hear that would make it possible for you to forgive me?" Or ask, "When you apologize to someone else, what do you typically say?" Or, perhaps, "In the past, when someone apologized to you, and it seemed to be a rather lame apology, what was missing?"

Chapman is also a pastor, and the book makes numerous references to Christianity and the Bible. But he says the advice can apply to anyone. "The whole matter of hurting people and being hurt is a human phenomenon. It doesn't matter what a person's religious belief is, assuming they believe that positive relationships are good."

Apology and forgiveness are universal issues, agrees Rabbi Steven Moss of B'nai Israel Reform Temple on Long Island, who also is chairman of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission.

In the 10 days from Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, it is the custom that Jews go to people they've hurt and ask for forgiveness.

"God cannot forgive us the sins we commit against other people; we must seek their forgiveness," Moss says.

"The Five Languages of Apology" mentions "Love Story," the 1970 romance that made famous the line, "Love means never having to say you're sorry." On the contrary, Thomas and Chapman say, "Love often means saying you're sorry, and real love will include apologies by the offender and forgiveness by the offended."

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