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How to apologize

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Chances are your head's spinning right now. That accusation of bias caught you off guard, you got kind of defensive, and now all hell has broken loose. You're feeling attacked on all sides. You're a good person at heart, and having all these people treat you like the antichrist is pretty upsetting.

You need to say something, but you're probably not in the best headspace to write copy right now. So to help you along, here's my 100% guaranteed-or-you-money-back scandal defusement apology template:


What we [said|did] was offensive, and we are sorry.

Recently we [CONCISE ACCOUNT OF WHAT YOU DID]. Someone pointed out that this was offensive, and we made things worse by reacting badly instead of listening carefully.

What we did was offensive, and how we handled the feedback was wrong. We apologize to all the people we hurt.

We want to learn from this experience. We welcome your thoughts: please tell us how we can do better, and don't hold back.


Here are a few of the things this template doesn't say:

  • "Some people were offended"
  • "We're sorry if you were offended"
  • "May have been construed as offensive"
  • "We made a good-natured joke that was misinterpreted"
  • "All in good fun"
  • "We had good intentions"
  • "We apologize to anyone who was offended"
  • "I know some people who weren't offended"
  • "A lot of that was out of our control"
  • "Our feelings were hurt by the reaction"
  • "We're a great company, check out our products"

Now is not the time to tell your side of the story. Communication has shut down, and whose fault that is is completely irrelevant. The only thing you can control right now is what you say. It is in your power to defuse the situation, but to do that you must take full, complete responsibility. No provisos, no weaseling. This may seem difficult and unfair. But ask yourself: is defending yourself really more important to you right now than fixing the problem?

Good luck.

  • "Some of us have [friends | family] in the class of people to whom what I [said | did] was offensive"

I'd suggest using the language of oppression rather than the usually-derailing language of offense -- http://genderbitch.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/words-offense/ goes into some detail about the reason why you might want to.

I think it will be easier to offer an apology when you mean it. When you're attacked from all sides, depending on the way you were raised/what you believe in, it may be hard to focus on the actual issue, due to all the noise. So even though the template makes sense, @avdi, I think that it's very important that the offender is able to decouple the accusation from the tone the accusation is made.

That said, I think it would be very useful for [mankind in general] to have a template for how to demand an apology. It is amazing how people bring an "offender" down without any consideration of context/motivation. I can think of a few rules right away:

  1. Consider if whoever offended you did it on purpose.
  2. Consider how you were addressed last time you offended someone. Did you like it?

Most important of all: we are all human beings, we all fail. Let's consider that and be kind to each other.

In the whole Geeklist vs The Internet affair, no one came out winning.

@david: this is exactly how not to reply to a marginalized person who's asking for justice. First, using the language of offense rather than oppression is obfuscatory. Second, consider the last time someone stepped on your foot. Did you think about whether they did it on purpose? Did you think about how to address them in the most polite possible way? Or did you yell "get off my foot"? People who are being hurt and oppressed have no obligation to consider the feelings of the person who is oppressing them -- after all, just as the person standing on your foot could have avoided being corrected if they had been more careful where they stepped, the oppressor could have avoided being criticized if they had taken just a second to consider the feelings of people who are less privileged than themselves.

This brings me to your second point: you're demanding that marginalized people be more empathetic, but this is your privilege showing, because those of us who are in marginalized groups think about the feelings of our oppressors all the damn time. We do it in order to survive. So demanding that we spend even more time catering to our oppressors' feelings is patronizing, insulting and yes, oppressive.

Finally, as regards point 1, whenever someone asks that I consider intent, I hear a bully demanding that I understand the situation their way -- demanding even further control over my mind -- and that I ignore my subjective, lived experiences and my feelings about what they did. In short: Fuck. No. This essay (also by Kinsey Hope) should be useful in that regard:

http://genderbitch.wordpress.com/2010/01/23/intent-its-fucking-magic/

tl;dr: Stop blaming victims. It's small consolation to be told "it's not that I meant to hurt you, it's that your life wasn't important enough for me to take a second of time to understand your experience in advance, before being called out on it." In fact, it's no consolation at all.

Yeah, intent is completely irrelevant. Most people who cause upset weren't going around thinking "gee, how can I offend someone today?". People get this idea that if they can just explain what their true intent was, the hurt will magically dissipate. But it doesn't work like that. As difficult and painful as this may be to contemplate, no one gives a shit what you meant, and explaining it doesn't help. You have to deal with the hurt feelings as they are; you don't get the luxury of explaining why they shouldn't be hurt in the first place.

@catamorphism, thanks for the thoughtful reply, I appreciate it. I'll try to address your points as best as I can.

Regarding your first point, I understand and I agree we can't expect people to be rational in some situations. But surely you agree that there are different levels of oppression/hurting that therefore can and should be handled differently? If I see a person beating another, I'll react differently than if I see someone (possibly without knowing) offend another on the internet. Note that I'm not saying that there's no offense--I said offenders must learn to decouple the actual accusation (and evaluate it objectively) from the tone that accusation is made. Just because someone yelled at me, it doesn't mean they're wrong--the accusation must be considered carefully, and I must apologize.

But, of all places, the internet allows you to stop, think, and handle things in a constructive manner. Let me give you an example:

http://therealkatie.net/blog/2012/mar/21/lighten-up/

This blog alone helped me understand what women go through in a way that no "please take it down, it's fucking offensive" tweet would ever be able to. The point is that we're people, all of us, and it's unrealistic to expect that we behave differently. We will do mistakes. We will get defensive. We will fail to understand what the fuss is all about ("I just made a good-natured joke that was misinterpreted") because we have blind spots, were raised to believe we aren't doing anything wrong, etc.

I submit that, in a sense, oppressors (even the worst ones) are victims themselves--they're hurting themselves, even if they don't know it. Lashing out at them without any consideration that they're human beings too is akin to sending people to jail without any consideration about how you are going to rehabilitate them (yeah, look at how good prisons are in making people regret their actions).

In the specific case of Geeklist, as @avdi pointed out, I'm sure you agree they never meant to offend anyone in the first place, right? So consider how much more helpful to the cause of oppressed women in tech would have been to ask them politely to take that video down and explain why, e.g., by pointing them to the link I pasted above. In the end, what we got was a half-assed apology, and it looks like they're dedicating this month to clean up the mess they got themselves into, but I must ask: do they really believe in what they're doing?

And that was my whole point. You win by changing people's hearts, and you change people's hearts by trying to relate to them on their grounds.

Please do call me out on what I said. I'm honestly trying to understand.

@avdi, I believe I replied to your observation in my reply to @catamorphism, but in case I wasn't clear enough I just want to reinforce this: I think your template is useful for someone who understands what they did wrong. If they didn't understand yet, and they put out an apology using your template, it means they're just being phony. In that case, no one won.

I basically agree on the matter of intent: it has no place in a sincere apology.

I do think that the closing argument of this essay is weakened by encouraging people to offer an abject apology when they don't agree with what they're apologizing about. This is trading an apology that is phony in letter, for one that is phony in spirit.

I believe that the right thing to do when you aren't ready to offer a sincere apology is not to offer a weasley one, or a fake one, but to try to open up the dialogue and figure out where people are talking past each other. In Geeklist's case, maybe this is on their blog, maybe it's through a Reddit or HN post. Maybe it's a Google Hangout! But it's not what we got, and I don't want them to tell me they regret something until they do.

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