#1066: “About That Awkward Thing I said earlier…”

Dear Captain,

Thank you so much for your blog!

This might be banal and is probably a case of Overthinking It. But it is something that I repeatedly seem to worry about recently.

Do you have any tips/guidelines on how to deal with the situation where you have said something that could be taken the wrong way. Where you realize, after the incident, that it might have been received in away you did not mean, and also remembering that the reaction might have been a bit off. Yet, bringing it up and apologizing might risk making something big and weird out of something that was small to begin with.

Best wishes!

Hi there:

Maybe look at it this way: What’s the worst thing that could happen if you apologize for something you said after the fact? For example: “That thing I said about [topic] the other day isn’t sitting right with me, and I’m sorry – I meant it as a joke but I realize it wasn’t funny.” 

In many cases the other person might say: “What? I’ve forgotten that already,” or “Don’t worry about it.” 

In other cases they might really appreciate the apology and the chance to clarify.

In some cases the person may not really like you all that much in the first place. If that’s the case, an apology probably can’t make it worse than it already is.

In almost no cases I can think of would someone say “Ugh, what’s wrong with you, why would you bring that up?” or like, punish you for speaking up. I mean, it’s certainly possible someone would say that, but it would say more about them than it does about you. We all misread the room sometimes, we all say stuff out loud that sounded much better in our heads. Who among us has not been awkward?

You’ve heard the expression: “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging”, yes? If you’re going to go back and apologize or clarify something you said earlier, I think the key is to be brief and specific, make it a real apology (“I’m sorry about what I said” NOT “I’m sorry you took that thing I said the wrong way“), let the other person say whatever they are going to say, and then (the hard part): LET IT DROP. Unless the other person pursues a deeper discussion, say your apology and then be mostly quiet. No more explaining, no arguing, no justifying, no self-flagellation (“I’m sorry it’s just that I’m such a terrible and awkward person, how can you even stand to be around me” = NOPE!), no making the person take care of your feelings. You may have been replaying the incident over and over in your mind for days, but the other person almost certainly has not doing that, and while they may appreciate an apology or a chance to clear up an awkward moment, they probably don’t want an invitation to your shame spiral.

Best wishes yourself!

127 thoughts on “#1066: “About That Awkward Thing I said earlier…”

  1. I think this is good advice. I think there might also be something of a time limit. A few days later makes sense, but I’m not sure there’s anything for me to do about things like “I made some comments ten years ago that I wouldn’t make today because of what I’ve learned since about social justice issues.”

    1. OOoh, good point! If we’re counting time since The Incident in days or even weeks, then it’s maybe good to talk, but if we’re talking years, then it’s probably time to let it drop and just resolve to do better in the future.

    2. Oh gosh, yes, a few days later, it makes a lot of sense. Longer than a week or so, and it’s a lot more likely that it won’t really help or they won’t really remember it.

      1. I was once, when I was very hungry, informed by my then-boyfriend that I was eating wrong because I picked up my burger and started chowing down on it before touching my fries. I pretty much rolled my eyes and kept going because he said a lot of ridiculous shit and who cares.
        About a month later (AKA ten million years when you’re twenty years old and completing a demanding double major), out of nowhere he turns to me and says, “So I was thinking about it, and I think you were right.” Right about what? The filmmaking genius of Jean Paul Jeunet? The weaknesses inherent in contractual ethics? Some other topic about which I cared passionately and he and I had disagreed?
        Nope. Apparently that it’s okay to eat your burger before your fries. Not because it’s silly to be obsessed with the order in which grown-ass adults eat their food, but because, and I quote, “If you’re really hungry then having that big chunk of protein might be more important than your fries being crisp.”
        I swear to any god listening that I am not making this up.
        The upshot of this is that I almost certainly would have completely forgotten the burger-eating comment if he hadn’t brought it up again. Instead it’s become a story that I tell people about That Fucking Guy. So yeah, unless it was a seriously big deal in the moment, just let it go. Otherwise you’re making it into a thing all on your own.

        1. Often, when you are tempted to open a window into your psyche/thinking process, the best plan is to resist temptation.

          I honestly would have gone to the end of time not knowing that there’s at least one person out there obsessed with eating fries and burgers in a particular order to preserve fry crispness, and now that I know…? Errrrrmmmm….

      2. I’ve found that I’ve actually gotten productive discussions about how to see my own red flags by leading with, “Hey, I said that badly, and it may not bother you, but it bothers me. You deserved more sensitivity than I showed. Here’s how I want to do better in the future.'” I think that’s in part because such an apology IS about how your perception of yourself in relation to the other person.

        It also helps me that I have a Dreamwidth (was Livejournal), which has these benefits: 1. no-one reads it except me. Like, the site as a whole, not just my blog; 2. Recording what I think I did wrong so I can review and avoid making these mistakes in the future; 3. Getting that angst out of my system without jostling others’ healing bruises. Sometimes, you really are just talking to yourself or thinking out loud, you know? If that’s what it is, yeah, it’s way better to do things that way than expect others to do the emotional digestion that you should have done. But for the wit of the staircase and its opposite, the headdesk of the evening shower, journalling helps keep it from getting weird for me.

        Now, be wary, I blog in a public-but-neglected space because I think it keeps me accountable, but your circle may have more need for anonymity, so you may want to keep your blog private, offline, or handwritten. (Three lessons written in scars across my forehead: never, ever assume people aren’t able to figure out who you are online; that you don’t have completely bizarre connections to the monkeyspheres of others; and DO NOT trust Facebook’s filter system, no matter how they say ‘No, really, totally fixed this time!”)

        1. It also helps me that I have a Dreamwidth (was Livejournal), which has these benefits: 1. no-one reads it except me. Like, the site as a whole, not just my blog;

          Do… do you mean no-one that you know in meatspace reads anything on Dreamwidth except you? Because I have an active community of fellow DW posters that I interact with and speaking of awkward things we say, it kind of hurts to hear that me and my friends are “no-one.”

          1. I apologize. I did not mean to dismiss your existence, I only meant to deride my own.

            Dreamwidth communities are its living soul, and I honestly compartmentalized even my own experience in communities from my journalling experience on there. I’m actually quite active in a fanfic community, and if someone characterized the usual suspects over there, the majority of whom are kind of a big deal on AO3, as “no-ones,” (no idea why they let me speak up) I would just assume sarcasm. So, yeah, thanks for pointing out that brainskip.

          2. Gah, and my reply probably looks like I’m backpedaling from my original statement. I’m absolutely not, and I should probably address your initial statement more: no sapient individual should feel like someone doubts their existence or authenticity. Erasure and the people who do it are burrs in the socks of humanity at the very least. Thanks for the correction, Aris Mequoni.

            Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go agonize over whether it makes people uncomfortable that I post with my personal username (I understand I’m, ah, quite a bit older than the usual fanfic writer for that fandom and maybe that creeps people out?) and my journal consists of blatherings about what kind of music my cat likes and OMGworkdrama rather than hot-and-glorious slash, or if it’s dishonest and creepy of me NOT to post under my regular name and lampshade that I’m a creepy old lady until I can ask on the next open discussion post.

            Sorry for the derail, just wanted to clarify.

          3. Thanks–apology definitely accepted, it’s so hard to judge tone in comments sometimes.

    3. Bringing stuff up from a long time ago would also cause the aggrieved party more pain and cause them to get mad at you again. They may have forgotten it and you could open up the wound again.

    4. An option for those 10-years-later moments, depending on the variables of your (I’m using the generic you throughout this comment, I don’t mean Kacienna specifically) particular situation, is to post about it on your online presence – what you did poorly, what you’ve learned in the interim, how you would do it differently now, perhaps that you wish you could apologize to the person in question but a creepy amount of time has passed, etc.

      If the person involved is still part of your life and reads your online presence, they’ll get your message without having to Make A Big Thing of something that they may or may not remember. If the person involved isn’t part of your life but is still thinking about you, they’ll google you at some point and find this post if they’re thinking about you enough to read at length. If the person involved isn’t even thinking about your any more, it has no impact on them.

      This also attends to your own emotional needs by letting you vent your feelings, and confessing it where you friends can read it can fulfill any emotional needs for penance. At the same time, it attends to the emotional needs of the person involved by not putting them on the spot for decades-old forgiveness, or interrupting their life to dredge up old unpleasantness.

  2. A year ago I had gotten into a conversation with a woman at a store in NYC. I was there as part of a well known female organization’s annual trip and the woman asked me (the leader of the group) what the policy on inclusion in the organization was. At the time the organization had made the announcement that they would not turn away transgender girls and had even returned a fairly substantial donation given because the donor had made exclusion a condition of the donation and I told her this. This was a group conversation that we were having and the woman addressed the younger females in the group by saying “I’m not a transgender person. I’m a gay person but I love the idea that there’s a safe place for girls to express themselves and to learn with other girls.” All in all it was a good conversation. There was more conversation after that, a few laughs, and then we parted ways.
    So why have I thought about that conversation at least once a week since? Because I worry that I only mentioned transgender inclusion and not gay/bi-sexual inclusion as well and that I made her feel left out. I think about how I should have taken a moment to tell her that the organization is open to all because it really is. Seriously. My friend who was there that day and part of the conversation tells me that my worries are unfounded but I still worry.

    1. I pretty much promise you this lady did not walk away from this conversation thinking it went badly.

    2. I don’t know if this helps, but gay & bi (& other queer) exclusion looks very different to trans exclusion. trans people are often *explicitly* unwelcome in single gendered spaces & organisations, because people believe they’re not a “real” man or woman. for cis queers, that doesn’t happen.

      speaking as a queer cis woman, it’d never occur to me that a group for women that is explicitly trans inclusive wouldn’t include me. I’d assume all women’s groups would allow me to join, even if my queerness (or neurodivergence) would mean some organisations are a bad cultural fit. by saying something like “we have recently clarified that we accept all self-identified women”, you tell me:

      1. this group thinks about inclusion, so there is a good chance I’ll feel accepted here. (especially if your tone suggested “…and it’s great we’ve clarified that now, because of course they’re women”)

      2. my girlfriend can come too. that matters to me a lot.

      if anything, I’d hear “yes, lesbians & bisexuals are allowed too” as the awkward thing. like, “yikes! a group leader in this organisation wants cookies because they don’t explicitly ban minority sexualities. wow.” (especially as 1. in my country, you’re legally required to do that & 2. I’m asexual anyway). so you said the best thing for me personally. not just The Best Thing I Can Reasonably Expect From A Well Meaning But Clueless Straight Person, but a clear sign that you’re *culturally* inclusive to me & people I love.

      1. Thanks! This is really helpful and I am going to come back to this when that conversation plays in my head again…because I’m an anxious human and I know it will. :/

    3. Honestly, I think that you did great, and that it went well! It sounds like a great learning opportunity for your girls, and sounds like a great, productive conversation. I have a hunch that she was asking about trans/gender variant inclusion, since that was a serious hot topic a year ago (and still today, FWIW).

  3. I am close friends with two people who, happily, have “SEIZED WITH AWKWARD REGRET” feelings like I do. So we’ve gotten pretty comfortable over the years saying to each other: “I AM SEIZED WITH AWKWARD REGRET” and then explaining why. I’d say 99% of the time, the other person has NO IDEA what the Awkward Regret person is talking about: the thing went right past, received as intended. The remaining 1% is what I’m estimating is the times we SAY “Pshh! What are you even talking about? I didn’t think anything of it!”—but actually appreciate the clarification; and, once clarified, it turns into no big deal.

    Other times, or with other people, when I don’t feel as comfortable bringing it up, I soothe myself by thinking that OVER TIME, the other person will come to know me well enough to know I didn’t mean something that way.

    1. I love this! I think having a formula for introducing this kind of conversation can make it easier for all parties.

      1. I love it when your friendship with someone gets to a point where you have a sort of shorthand or “code phrase” for things like this. I have a friend with whom either of us can say “open comms, ok?” and it means “I don’t mean anything personal, it’s just really important that I pass this information along.”

        It came from the first time I took them flying, and in a small plane we have to be honest about awkward and highly personal things like “do you feel ill or hungover this morning? how much do you weigh? are you feeling nauseous if I do this manuver or that manuver? shut up right now so I can hear the radio. move your head so I can see.” so my pre-flight briefing emphasizes the importance of being honest – of openly communicating – about these things, even if they would be uncomfortable or embarrassing in normal conversation, in order to have an enjoyable and safe flight.

        So now “open comms” has become our shorthand for “urgent information, no subtext or judgement or implication, I didn’t mean anything by it.” It’s been really helpful for things like constructive criticism.

    2. I am going to try using your very words “I AM SEIZED WITH AWKWARD REGRET” when stuff like this comes up with my loved ones. Those words are so over-the-top and sweet that they set a tone of friendliness for the conversation to follow.

    3. One thought about those convos is that the person who was seized by the awkward regret can escape its clutches. And that’s worth something.

    4. SEIZED WITH AWKWARD REGRET! What a brilliant way of phrasing it! I am hereby adopting it to share in my own friend circle. Thanks, Swistle!~

  4. I have this problem all the time. What do I do if it’s like… a room full of people I said it to? Do I seek them out? Or like… wait until the next time most of us are together? Or just… at this point my strategy is usually to just let it go and figure, if people don’t know by now that I’m kind of awkward, they’ll learn pretty quick, in the meantime I’ll try not to repeat the same awkward thing again later, but that might just be me avoiding bringing it up.

    1. The “trying not to repeat whatever it is” effort is probably the most important thing here?

    2. At a basketball game there was a fast break, and I yelled at the defense for ‘somebody pick up the big girl” – (meaning the tall girl who was open under the basket, not the shorter girl who was dribbling) – and have felt like a garbage person ever since.

  5. I read an article a while back that said not to give any interaction longer than 7 seconds of brain time. Obviously, you can’t use it as a get out of jail free card to be a total dick, but I’ve found that I generally forget the awkward/weird things people say and have been trying to be more forgiving to myself when I do something weird. We’re all human and make mistakes.

    1. They must mean after the fact, right? And even then, sometimes it’s going to take more. This is fine advice for dealing with a random awkward thing, which I hope is how they meant it, but any sort of deep or intimate or hard conversation is going to take a lot more!

      1. Yes, after the fact. I guess I read the question as one-off things that were maybe a little weird but not earth shattering/reputation destroying.

        And agreed – I would not want to only give a really serious/intimate conversation only 7 seconds of brain time after it happened!

    2. I read an article something to that effect on Jezebel. I think it was really good advice in a general, overarching way, for us chuckleheads who worry needlessly about JUST HOW FAR my foot is in my mouth. In fact, it’s probably not that far.

      Not that anyone here is a chucklehead, just me. 🙂

  6. I had a friend in college who gave me this advice: “no one is thinking about you.” As in, if you do something awkward or embarrassing, odds are everyone else is worrying about the awkward or embarrassing thing THEY did and not about your thing. Not that that means you shouldn’t apologize if you want to.

    I can remember lots of times in my life where someone apologized to me for something they did or said that I have no memory of. And conversely I think I’ve been hurt or offended by something someone said that they completely forgot about. So, not sure what the moral is here. Just that no one is perceiving things the way you are so it’s often fruitless to worry about.

    Not that that really does a whole lot to help those of us with social anxiety (hi!) but hey, nice to think about.

    1. This reminds me of one of my Breakthrough Moments in Dissertating. My friend and I, caught in the throes of agony over how to craft emails to our advisers, finally realized that we thought about them much more than they thought about us. Like, we were spending hours over emails that they’d just read and answer matter of factly. It was profoundly liberating!

      1. I bet it was.

        I used to work in customer service, and anything that wasn’t a) written in green comic sans against a pink background (true story!) or b) in not-safe-for-work territory would be treated, answered, and remembered in exactly the same way. Not using a capital letter after Dear X? Not matching salutation and the signoff? Super-casual register? No salutation at all? I did not care.

        I also feel – and I’m a copy editor – that anyone who refuses to hire me because I made a typo in my e-mail is not a good match for me. Such people, I’m told, exist – but most of the time, the hours spent honing e-mails every much fall under ‘overthinking it’.

    2. Except that in my case, I have had long-time friendships suddenly Terminated with Extreme Prejudice, so to speak, over stuff I had no idea was brewing, apparently for months or longer (??), due to things someone else felt about something I did or said that they never told me they had Feelings about and thus I never got to go “wow, I’m really sorry about that” or “what a misunderstanding; I feel terrible how I came off” or whatever. And so “don’t worry about it; they’re not thinking about you” is pretty much the opposite of helpful for me, because I have evidence (Reams of Evidence! Decades of Evidence!) that in fact people do take awkward or difficult stuff that happens between us, stuff it away, and then chain it to my leg and throw me overboard.

      I wrote the Captain about this a while back, but I was far too wordy in trying to explain the situation, probably, so I’ll likely not get an answer, but I couldn’t figure out how to summarize things more effectively. 😦

      1. Are you a member of the friendsofcaptainawkward forums? I’m sure if you made a thread there, people would give you some feedback.

        I don’t have quite as long a history of this as it sounds like you do, but I do relate to what you’re saying. If it helps, people who store up resentment instead of addressing it head on as it comes up are also officially making it weird, because thats not the way to handle things like this. Even when it feels like a pattern is emerging around you specifically, it’s still really about them and their choice to handle things like this. Possibly there have been cases of no fault on either side incompatibility between you and these people (even in long term friendships these can come up due to people changing etc), and they don’t know that it’s ok to go lower contact/end friendships just because they aren’t feeling it, so they latch onto a small thing you did that could easily be apologised for by you and pretend it was super important and hurtful and nothing can ever fix things between you. This is very harmful for you and makes it seem like you’re prone to friendship ruining moments, when in reality its that they had already clocked out on your friendship but can’t handle looking like the bad guy, so they make you the bad guy. I think it’s similar to the way some people behave when they want out of a romantic relationship but don’t want to have to be the one who does the actual breaking up, except that we have even less cultural touchstones for no fault friendship ending than we do romantic relationship ones, so in many ways it’s more awkward and confusing.

        1. Thanks, I appreciate your comment here. I’ll think about posting in the forum – for some reason it feels more vulnerable than having a letter answered? But it’s a good idea.

        2. YES THIS. I once had a friendship/roommate situation implode over a borrowed can of mushrooms.

          Obviously far more to it than that, but that was the reason given. In retrospect, said roomfriend was clearly a conflict avoidant person to the extreme, and had past hurts in their life that made self-care and boundary-setting seem Deeply Difficult. I was in a very similar mindset at the time, so it’s easy to see how innocuous mistakes spiralled out into The Biggest of Deals.

          I have a lot of compassion in my heart for the people we both were back then, but ultimately I think it was for the best that the friendship ended. Neither of us could have made it easy for the other to grow & learn healthier coping mechanisms.

      2. I don’t know your specific situation, but one thing I found actually helped me was doing the other side of what the OP was asking.

        When a friend did something small and forgettable that bothered me, I started doing the “hey, I know you didn’t intend it this way, but [thing] really hurt my feelings. Can we talk about it for a minute?” (For the record, I am one of those conflict avoidant people and this was IMMENSELY difficult–still is–but it usually was resolved quickly and with a genuine apology from the friend!)

        Once I started doing that, my friends, likewise, felt more comfortable doing the same thing and telling me when I’d done something unintentionally assy instead of holding onto it. I won’t say it works every time or for every friend, but…it’s been a very long time since I got one of those “I’ve been mad about this for two years and never said anything, this was the last straw, now we’re not friends anymore” blindsides.

        1. I love this strategy, because it lets you nip things in the bud. I try to do this too (especially when it comes to my name; I have a name that sometimes gets mispronounced and I used to let it go, but now I correct everyone and I feel so much better). But I think it’s addressing a slightly different issue, the issue of nipping things in the bud that actually bother you, as opposed to letting go of some goofy thing you did because no one’s probably thinking about it (and if it did bother them, they should tell you!).

          1. Oh, definitely–my suggestion was specifically in response to Name Redacted, who was saying that they COULDN’T assume no one was thinking about it, because of the way little things had come back to haunt them in the past.

        2. Here’s the thing: I was doing that, and I think it’s part of what sent things downhill. My situation was kind of complicated because there were two other friends involved (nature loves a triangle!) but I actually had a couple of “hey, I’m pretty sure you didn’t intend this, but that comment came off as kind of grouchy and pokey, and it didn’t feel good” with friend A about a year ago.

          Both times, friend A responded by launching into “well you do a lot of things I don’t like, and you don’t do X Y and Z, criticism criticism.” (This is a person who reposts lots of those “how to properly apologize” and “how to take feedback” listicles on social media, BTW.) So both times, I responded basically “hm, it sounds like we should talk about that. However, this isn’t going quite how I’d hoped. I was hoping you could just hear me say ‘ow,’ and acknowledge it.” And both times, I got another bunch of criticism. So both times, I ended with “well, this really isn’t going well; maybe we should try doing it in person? You mean a lot to me and I know this is important to do with friends.” And both times I got silence, but she would be fine with me in person.

          Of the two friends lost, I’m more upset about B – A has never taken feedback well and B and I had much more of a “yay, we can repair things with each other” friendship already. But it hurts extra that I really tried the “let’s repair a little thing and hopefully that will strengthen our relationship” and it blew up on me.

          Maybe I’ll go to the forums.

      3. There are two possibilities:

        1. Your friends are unusually reticent to talk about things or tell you about issues, either because they’re kind of losing interest in the friendship anyway or because of their own problems.

        2. Your friends think their feelings are clear, and have been trying to send signals, but you are unusually blind to them.

        Other commenters have addressed #1, but I have a few friends who are strongly #2 (literally can’t take a hint) and I want to mention that. Some if the steps I’d recommend are the same: be open about soliciting feedback and wanting directness, admit that you’re oblivious sometimes and that you’ve had trouble. Then, listen to what people tell you. If they tell you things are fine, believe them; even if they’re covering something up I think this is *still* the best way to go because it leaves the ball in their court. A lot of people won’t be comfortable opening up much at first, or will be worried about a big argument, but if you’re honestly looking for advice (as opposed to reassurance) and willing to change behaviors that will come through and they’ll open up.

        Don’t let these past bad experiences make you too nervous; most people will tell you when something is wrong and won’t surprise friend-dump you! But you can help skew the odds in your favor by opening the topic first and asking a friend to tell you if they think you’re being too awkward or oblivious.

  7. Reading several of the comments, something else that occurs to me is that if you did want to do anything, maybe check with friend and ask them about the specific thing you worry you said. If it’s just, like, odd it may be better to drop it. People say odd things, usually people don’t really mind!

    If it might have been insulting or otherwise worthy of an apology, then maybe saying “I said X and I realised it could have come across as Y which I really really didn’t mean, I hope not, but if so, I’m really sorry,” would help. And if they say, “oh uck, no-one would think that, for god’s sake don’t bring it up”, then you’ll know maybe it’s fine but you’ll know what to not say now.

    1. I’d avoid conditional apologies.

      So instead of “… which I really didn’t mean, but if so, I’m sorry” I would probably say “…which I really didn’t mean, and for which I’m sorry.”

      1. Good call. After all, even if nobody thought you really meant the thing, you can still be sorry the implication was there.

      2. I feel really unsure here, because I agree that you should generally assume responsibility for whatever you said, and conditional, uncertain, or equivocal apologies are usually unhelpful.

        But like, to me, if someone stands on my hand by accident, I want a straightforward apology, but if someone deliberately stamps on my hand, I want a much more serious like, how did that happen, are you ever going to come near me again or what, etc, type apology. And for me, it’s the same if they said something — if they thought racist thing and actually said it, that’s one thing, and if they deliberately said something racist, that’s something else, and if they said something that really unluckily happened to SOUND racist but was actually something else again. Like, I actually care about the difference, because if they’re a foot-in-mouth-say-insensitive-things person, I’ll know what I’m getting in to, but if they actually hate me, then maybe there’s no point trying to be friends. And I don’t necessarily want foot-in-mouth person to have to pretend they actually meant horrible thing in order to apologise to me, because that would likely make me feel worse.

        The example in my mind was, my girlfriend was once at a zoo, with her infant son, who was had lots of limbs and long shaggy red hair, and joked, “look, Hisname, you’re like those Orangutans”. I don’t think that was inappropriate — they made that kind of joke every so often. But to the black man standing just in front of her, who coincidentally had the same first name as her son, it sounded like a really racist joke about him, and he was justifiably really really shocked. And fortunately, she was able to explain and it was all ok. But with something like that, I feel like, the man was much reassured by “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, I was talking to my son, not you” than “Oh my god, I’m so sorry for saying something so racist”, because he doesn’t have to go on thinking that one more person in the world deliberately says things like that and only apologises if someone notices. But that doesn’t fulfil the usual advice of focusing on accepting responsibility.

        1. This thread is about apologizing later, for things you realize later are, or might be, offensive.

          You’re talking about responding at the time of the incident. Your specific example is the opposite of the comment I responded to: it’s in the moment and the person who made the remark knows that someone is upset.

          1. Ah, ok. But now I’m not sure, does that mean that if you realise that sort of mistake, say, three days later, you should *not* explain? Or that you should apologise but not explain that you didn’t mean it? That doesn’t sound better to me, did you mean I should do something else?

          2. The sort of mistake you describe – a stranger taking offense at something not directed at them – isn’t a mistake you can fix three days later.

            If you meant something different, like what if you don’t notice whether an acquaintance was upset by something you said that wasn’t directed at them, then you’d ask.

            Oscar, my son and I have a game about living in a garbage can. I just realized you might not have known that. Does our game bother you?

            If Oscar says yes, you’d say Oops! Sorry. We’ll try to avoid the game in future.

            If Oscar says no, you’d say Great! That was worrying me. I’m glad we cleared it up.

    2. I disagree. There’s no way to check without explaining *exactly* why the thing might be awkward, so you don’t avoid any awkwardness when you check. Worse: if you check in with your friend before proceeding with the apology, you’re *involving* them. You’re making them the judge of whether you should feel ashamed. That makes things 100x more awkward than if you just explain, briefly apologize, and then drop the topic.

      1. I assumed that cartesiandaemon was saying they’d talk the event over with other people . If the other people indicated that cartesiandaemon had said or done something off, then cartesiandaemon would bring it up with the original putative sufferer.

  8. I was militant about this in the past. Now, I do my best to not be a dick and count on my (mostly) awesome friends to call me out if I’m being a dick. Which has happened all of one time. And I was glad it was brought to my attention. I learned to accept that I am indeed a dick (at times) and I do my best to not be a dick to those who don’t deserve my ire. Learning to let that stuff go came hand in hand in accepting that I am not always the best person and that’s ok. I can handle it now if I offend someone.

  9. This is something I struggle with. All. The. Time. I have a very dry and sarcastic sense of humour that people in my home country find funny. I’m Scottish, living in Canada working for a US company and a lot of people just don’t “get” my humour. I struggle to know if what I said or joked about could be taken the wrong way. Could I have inadvertently offended someone? Did they realise I was joking and in no way serious? I try really hard to not joke or be sarcastic with my work colleagues but its hard. I often think I should apologise to people for things I’ve said and I over analyse most interactions.

  10. Building on “(“I’m sorry about what I said” NOT “I’m sorry you took that thing I said the wrong way“), ”

    One of the things we taught our kids since toddlerhood is that an apology starts with “I’m sorry I….” not “I’m sorry you…” or “I’m sorry that….” Simple but it works.

  11. I have very good friends and my husband and I gently joke about them because any time that we visit with each other, we are guaranteed a text the next morning that says, “I’m really sorry I said x about y,” and I don’t think we have ever remembered any instance they’re talking about. So I’ll just say I love the Captain’s advice and to be gentle with yourself. If (fairly normal) interaction leads to you spinning around in your head all night, tell your head to close its eyes. 🙂

  12. Another thing to keep in mind is that there’s no cosmic scorecard, and there’s no expectation that your life is always polished and free of bad takes from birth to death.

    Let it go. Don’t let it become a pattern, of course, and thinking before you speak can never hurt, but seriously – let it go.

    That said, if you are surrounded by people who harp on every misspeak and intentionally interpret everything you say in the worst light, maybe you have a different problem. LWs letter is quite short and I don’t thiiiink this is the situation, but just in case it’s the crowd or a subset of it that’s bringing on the overthinking: Sometimes it’s Not You.

  13. The only time I’ve ever minded an after-the-fact apology is when the person seems to want me to do All The Soothing. Which speaks to Captain’s Let it Drop caution above.

  14. i think the frequency with which one feels like apologizing to a certain person comes into play, importantly. i have had several people consistently apologize for their behavior that didn’t warrant it, and granted they seemed to be digging for more of the kind of validation that CA advises the apologizer not to seek out, but it does get annoying to frequently have to tell someone ‘no you’re fine, i don’t even remember what you’re talking about,’ and tends to color my interactions with them if i know they might try to be reassured later that they did ok, tho maybe that eventually becomes a boundary thing on my behalf.

  15. Oh this is relevant. So relevant.

    Count me in as one of those overthinkers. I also have a ton of trouble stopping at just foot in mouth and not moving on to ankle, shin, knee…so most of the time I proceed to dig that hole even deeper and then make with awkwardly ignoring whatever I’ve said and pretending I am not seized with All The Regret.

    As one might imagine, this…doesn’t usually work so well.

    Thank you for this, Captain. I needed this today.

  16. Years ago, I ran into a friendly acquaintance while I was out with other friends. When I introduced her to my friends I said, “This is Sheila, she’s married to [semi-well-known music industry person].” I did that because my other friends were music industry and it was simply the first thing that came to my mind as something to connect them.

    A few months later she and I were sharing a ride to a concert that mutual friends were having, we still didn’t’ know each other well, but I went ahead and brought that up saying, “I just want you to know that I regret introducing you that way, you are not just an extension of your husband and I truly don’t think of you that way.” She was honestly touched by the apology and it HAD bothered her at the time (as it would most of us) and now, 10 years later we are the best of friends (as she is with one of the friends I was with that night! She’s also divorced now).

    So I think if you make a real faux pas, an apology even a good amount of time later is valuable, but I agree with the consensus about the ones you’re not sure were misunderstood.

  17. A few years ago after I hired a new person (who happened to be Russian and have a really beautiful accent) I made a joke in a meeting about something he said, to the tune of “that sounds more menacing when you say it!” Immediately after I said it I realized this was not funny or appropriate, even though everyone had chuckled. I waited until the end of the meeting when our guests had left, then said, “I am so sorry about the joke about your accent. It was a terrible thing to say and I should not have done it”. He said, “oh no, I am used to it, it’s fine.” I said, “no, it’s not. I am sorry”.

    And that’s one of the best hindsight decisions I’ve ever made. I cannot imagine how bad I would still feel about that had I not apologized.

  18. One exception to this rule I’ve heard is if it relates to any sort of dysphoria or trauma.

    For example, apologizing for misgendering someone a day after the interaction can bring some folks right back to that very bad feeling—although others do ok with it and appreciate the thought.

    It’s no hard and fast rule, but it’s something to bring into consideration.

  19. Timely! One of my coworkers accidentally sexted couple of my other coworkers (it was very clearly meant for someone else) and referenced a body part usually considered non-sexual. I work with generally good-hearted but pretty immature dudes who’ve been giving him a relentless hard time. I’ve stayed out of it, but have heard the story. Well, at lunch I completely innocently referenced that body part (think like, ears or something) and it set the whole thing off again! I feel bad, because I should have known to stay away from the topic, but I have honestly haven’t thought much of the incident since hearing about it. But since it’s kind of all anyone else has been talking about I’m sure he thinks I was goading him.

    I want to make it clear it was an innocent mistake, but also really don’t want to have any conversation that rests upon an implicit “I know about that thing you’re into”. Like, he knows I know, but thus far we’ve been pretending I know nothing about any of it.

    Also, I’m the only woman in the department and he’s a “no swearing with ladies present” type of dude, so bonus awkwardness.

    I’m just not sure if apologizing might cause more harm than good here.

      1. I like that this wording acknowledges what you are sorry for (that the issue got dragged back out), and not what you did that wasn’t wrong (mentioning an innocuous topic in an innocuous way), and also that it explicitly lets him know that you think your coworkers are being obnoxious. I don’t think you owe an apology, but I do think one worded like this would be gracious.

    1. Because you’ve never participated in the nonsense, I would hope he saw it was unintentional on your part, in which case I think I would not apologize.
      You’re not the one being an ass to him, the kindergartners are. When someone innocently says something that sets off the missing stair, the problem is still the missing stair.

      if you really think he believes it was intentional, maybe apologize? maybe say something along the lines of “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize our co-workers’ immaturity means we can never use certain words again without reverting to junior high.”


    2. My take is you owe zero apologies.

      Here’s the timeline you have:
      – X is sexting at work about his partialism
      – X sends those sexy texts to other co-workers
      – The other coworkers tease X
      – You mention the body part X fetishes (in some other context) and they tease him some more

      Now, if you’re feeling really sympathetic to the man who conducts his sex life at work and thinks women don’t know cuss words, you can say something like “Yo, coworkers, give it a rest” or “X, I’ll try to avoid BodyPart discussions in future” but I wouldn’t bother.

      It’ll die down eventually.

      1. Only thing is he wasn’t sexting at work. It was the night before when he was in a group text with coworkers during a sporting event they were all watching at their respective homes and apparently he was also sexting someone at the same time and got the threads confused.

        This dude isn’t exactly my favorite person, but I do feel bad for him in this case.

  20. This is great advice! I sometimes realize later that something I said or did isn’t sitting well with me, and while I (still) feel a little weird about it, I do follow up and apologize in these situations. It’s been fine every time; the responses I’ve gotten all fall into CA’s first two categories, usually with thanks for the consideration.

    And that apologize and let it drop bit is absolutely key, especially for the anxious over-thinkers or anyone else prone to shame-spiraling. As CA notes, you want your apology to be a sincere attempt at amends, not a demand for emotional labor to manage your feelings of shame. Trust your friends to be engaging with you in good faith, not secretly looking for ways to make you feel bad/worse (and consider trying to find new friends if they demonstrate that trust is misplaced – people who are NOT engaging with you in good faith are not people I would call “friends”). I know from experience that doing so can be difficult (I’m not suggesting it assuming that it’s easy and uncomplicated for everyone), especially for people with life experience that tells them otherwise (especially if caretakers in whom one placed trust to care for one’s well-being violated that trust) and/or psychological conditions that make trusting others difficult, and I also know that it’s worth the perceived risk to put your trust in others in situations where one can rationally deduce that the outcome will likely be positive in order to build up some experiences that demonstrate that people are not universally abusive, deceitful, cruel, etc.

  21. I identify with this so much. I’ve gotten a bit better at not beating myself up over small things from the past, but it still keeps me up at night sometimes.

    The hardest for me is that I am terrified of bringing up past mistakes, even if only to apologize, because every time I did with my parents, they would start chastising me for it all over again. It often then devolved into them talking about all my perceived flaws, and I was just supposed to listen and endure it (I assume – I never knew what they wanted me to do). And of course if I brought up something they did that hurt me, they turned that around on me or tried to play it off, so that was also difficult.

    To this day, apologizing or talking about my mistakes (when not around people I trust) is hard for me to do, because I expect the person to just start berating me. I’ve gotten better at it, but it’s been tough to get past. Guess I know what I’m bringing up at my next therapy appointment!

  22. I have pre-emptively apologized for saying something that I think might have offended someone. Usually that creates awkwardness because the other party gives me the “WTF are you even talking about?” look. I have even apologized for apologizing.

  23. I’m a person who has been hurt, offended, or embaressed by others many times when I thought an apology was in order – but that apology never came. We’ve developed a culture that is sorely lacking in the ability to offer a genuine apology for anything – as if a display of humility somehow equals a weakness we should avoid. I don’t believe the LW would create more awkwardness by apologizing! Rather, I think they’d stand out as a rare individual who takes the time to reflect on their actions and who can acknowledge when they’ve misstepped. Some scripts I’ve had success with are:

    By the way, I think I might have hurt your feelings when I….and I wanted to apologize.
    Hey, I’ve been worried that I upset you when I….and I apologize.
    Thinking back on X, it occurred to me that I might have overstepped my bounds when I….and I wanted to apologize.
    I just wanted to say that before, I was a real jerk when I….and I’m sorry.

    And I also believe that the word “if” doesn’t belong in an apology. (like, “if you were offended”). When you believe you did something wrong, name it & apologize for it, regardless of how the other person actually felt about it. Captain is right – let them tell you there was no harm done.

  24. Oh boy. I still remember vividly this incident from college where I probably really offended this girl and I really didn’t mean to! I was taking Strength Training as my physical education credit in college, and it involved meeting in the college gym and using the weight machines. Back then, I was a thin person. On the first day, the instructor asked us to pair up with someone to do the workout circuits. This girl that paired up with me was a larger person. I, in my nervousness about using these weight machines that I had never used before, said to her, “Have you ever worked out before?”

    Now, what I really meant was “Do you know how to use these machines because I don’t and I’m afraid of embarrassing myself, please help me” but what actually came out was “Have you ever worked out before?” She gave me a weird look and said yes, and I’m sure I looked relieved, thinking “Good she can help me use these machines.” However, several days later, this conversation comes back to me and I realize, to my horror, OMG, OMG, it must have seemed like I, a thin person, had assumed that she, a non-thin person, had never worked out before just because of her body type/size. I still experience a deep, full body cringe when I think about this. Even worse, I was so embarrassed about what an ass I must have sounded like that I chickened out of ever apologizing to her for it. We had moved on and continued to be partners for the class and got along well, so to her credit she was able to look past it and work with me, but I still worry that she remembers this conversation and it hurts her feelings.

    1. I wonder what a good way to forgive yourself for something like this is. I have a similar incident (also from college) that still haunts me almost 20 years later and I never personally knew the person to begin with so I didn’t really have a chance to apologize.

      (I was going to tell a story about how I once said something to a customer that sounded like I wrongly assumed her ethnicity even though I actually knew her correct ethnicity, but I realized it would be self-indulgent and not helpful for anyone but me.) Sum was that I said something that clearly added to the pile of microaggressions that someone had to deal with–she almost certainly has forgotten this particular incident but I know that the sum of all these things may still hurt. There is literally no way to apologize, although I have since tried to be more conscious of my actions since. But my brain just won’t let go.

  25. I do this periodically and the Captain’s advice is actually what I do.

    A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with co-workers and one of our regional representatives came up. I have worked with that man since literally the day he was hired and we just do not get along and I’m pretty sure I’m the jerk in the relationship. He’s Ned Flanders to my Homer. Martin Prince to my Nelson Muntz… etc.

    So, when he came up in conversation, I rolled my eyes and the two coworkers asked about that and I kind of just babbled a bit about my dislike for the guy.

    They were politely taken aback and the conversation moved on. He is a friend of theirs, apparently.

    When lunch was over, things didn’t sit right and I got into this thought cycle about what a jerk I am.

    I went to both coworkers and said, “Hey. I’m really sorry about talking about your friend like that. It was very uncool of me. Will not happen again.”

    One said, “Oh, thank you! Apology accepted!”

    The other said, “What thing about Ned? Huh. Don’t remember, but it’s big of you to step up like this, thanks. No apology necessary.”

  26. I’ve run into a few occasions recently where (I think) the after-the-fact conditional-style “I’m sorry you were offended/upset” apology was the right response. This has occurred when something that I would regard as a safe general-interest topic to discuss in a casual group wound up being specifically upsetting to somebody in a way that the group could not reasonably be expected to know about beforehand.

    -In casual chatting with a group of friends-of-friends at a party we got on the topic of the pets we had earlier in our lives.
    -As part of this conversation it was occasionally acknowledged that pets do not live forever, and sometimes the the general circumstances of a pet’s demise were discussed. Nothing graphic, think stuff like “Rover got hit by a car when I was 10 ” etc.
    -Specific Friend-of-Friend (SFOF) who I don’t know well was present for the conversation.
    -SFOF recently had to deal with the deal a pet to which they were very attached. This is not common knowledge and did not come up during the party.
    -SFOF found the discussion to be very upsetting to the point that they were no longer comfortable, opted to leave the party early, couldn’t sleep that night, etc. Apparently it was a Big Deal for their household.
    -I found out that the conversation had upset SFOF the next day.

    How do I apologize?

    I am not sorry that I was making conversation about old pets with a group of apparently interested people. I really do think that the topic was fair game for polite conversation.

    I am sorry that SFOF was upset by this conversation, and of course will try not to bring this subject up again around them in the future.

    It really does seem like something along the lines of “I’m sorry that conversation offended you…” is appropriate and accurate, but I realize that this phrasing is also often used by shitbirds as cover for saying or doing shitbird things.

    Do I even apologize? I also kind of feel that it was on SFOF to either leave the conversation or to change the topic if it was that big of an issue.

    1. You say to them “My condolences on the death of Pet” or “I was so sorry to hear of Pet’s death” or “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

    2. i’d probably do something like, “hey, i’m so sorry you lost , and i’m also sorry i hurt you when i brought up previous pets. i’ll do my best to give that topic a rest around you, SFOF. take care of yourself.” however, as i don’t know SFOF and i’m not good at this to begin with, this may not work. i think even though you brought up a normal topic in a group setting and didn’t expect someone to be upset by it, it’s still possible to emphasize your actions in the event, even though you didn’t do it with knowledge of what happened to their pet. it wasn’t malicious by any means, of course. oh, this also depends on how long it’s been. more than a week or so and i would just drop the apology and try to do better the next time i see them.

      1. Given how upset SFOF was, I’d be concerned that bringing up the topic even to apologize might set the emotional difficulties off again. If they said something to Cordoba directly then that sort of apology makes sense. If Cordoba heard from someone else that SFOF had been upset, I’d be more inclined to just avoid bringing up the topic with them again but otherwise let it drop.

        1. ah, true. also the html ate “pet” after the first lost. but yeah, i can see how that’d be an issue. when i lost my dog i was thinking about her all the time anyway so it wasn’t as much of a big deal to bring it up. if they don’t say anything about it, it might be kinder to just quietly avoid the topic. (i am not good at this.)

        2. I’m not SFOF, but the death of some of my pets has been really sad for me for multiple weeks and months. I didn’t forget overnight. When people have offered condolences, I’ve been grateful.

    3. I don’t see any problem with something along the lines of “I was so sorry to hear of Fluffy’s death — we didn’t know about it when we got on the pet topic at the party, and I can totally understand how stressful and upsetting that discussion would have been for you.” You’re explaining how an awkward exchange happened, not making an excuse, right? I’d feel better, if I were in SFOF’s position, to know that — it feels like a useful and courteous part of the apology. It’s entirely possible they wrongly thought everyone knew and were being insensitive.

    4. One reason I wouldn’t say “I’m sorry that conversation offended you…” in this case is that SFOF wasn’t offended, they were hurt. Saying “offended” sounds like you think they found the topic morally objectionable, and fails to acknowledge how they actually felt.

      1. Long time reader, first time commenter, here to say thank you so much for saying, that, @AllanV! This really hits the nail on the head of something I’ve been feeling for some time in our current climate where people like to act like everyone is a “snowflake” or “easily offended.” It’s always bothered me because of course it’s ludicrous, but I think you’re absolutely correct that we’ve taken to using “offended” as a catch-all term when sometimes that’s not what’s happened at all. Maybe we think it’s not very grown up or “cool” for an adult to admit they have feelings that can be hurt? But of course we all do, and there’s a pertinent difference between “this topic offends [my sensibilities, my morality, my ideals]” and “this really hurt my feelings.” Or, to reverse the roles, there’s a difference between “sorry I offended you” and “sorry I hurt your feelings.” The latter honors the experience of the person who was hurt.

    5. If you run into them again soon, you could just say, “I’m truly sorry to have upset you/caused you additional pain at such a sensitive time with the conversation the other night; I didn’t know.” It’s accurate. You’re sorry for being the source of hurt for another person. It really doesn’t matter at that point that the conversation was something you would have avoided had you known. When you step on someone’s foot, you apologize for the pain, even if it was an accident and where you were stepping was a totally normal place to have your foot. You don’t say, “I’m sorry your foot got in my way,” you acknowledge the pain and let them know that it was accidental.

    6. It sounds like what really upset the person was the death of their pet. The conversation brought the loss to the forefront of their mind, but from the sound of it it probably wasn’t really the conversation they were hurting about, but the death ?

      It seems like condolences on the loss of their pet probably get closer to the heart of the matter

      1. Though I also agree that an apology of the ‘I so sorry I stepped on your foot, it was an accident’. In this analogy the foot was recently injured, and I think if I accidentally stepped on someone’s injured foot, even if I was walking in a totally normal and not reckless way, I would say something to them.

    7. I think underlying your conundrum is the idea that you should only apologize if you were wrong, and you’re pretty sure you’re not wrong. Well, good news! You actually weren’t wrong! You couldn’t magically know that her family had just lost a pet. At the same time, you introduced a topic that was obviously incredibly upsetting to her. It hurt her feelings, so much that she left a party and couldn’t sleep. You did that. Not the distanced “her feelings were hurt.” When you upset people and feel bad about it, you should apologize, even if you didn’t do anything wrong. This is because the primary purpose of an apology is to maintain relationships, not to establish guilt or innocence. An apology is not an admission of guilt. Bump into a person with your cart at the grocery store, but it’s not clear which one of you had right of way? Say sorry! Called someone by a nickname they don’t like, even though that’s how they were introduced to you? Say sorry! Hurt someone’s feelings by raising a conversation topic that reminded them of traumatic events? Say sorry! Don’t make it into a referendum into whether or not you did something wrong enough to warrant an apology. You don’t need to defend yourself before a jury. An apology shows SFOF that you CARE that raising the topic of pets upset her. That’s what apologies are for. They show that you care. It can go like this:
      You to SFOF: SFOF, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize your family had lost Fluffy so recently when I started the conversation about pets the other night.

      1. But Cordoba *didn’t* start that conversation. It was a general conversation which they were part of. I think that makes a difference here. Cordoba can certainly offer condolences for the friend’s loss, but they have nothing to apologize for.

        1. Weirdly, “Hurt someone’s feeling by participating in a conversation that reminded them of traumatic events? Say sorry!” also fits in with HannahS’s suggestion. The apology still indicates that Cordoba cares they were upset; it’s not an admission of guilt, it’s an expression of sympathy and regret.

  27. I’d just add: keep an eye on how often you find yourself doing this. I’ve worked with a couple of people in the past who approached me almost daily to apologize for conversations I’d already forgotten or hadn’t thought anything of at the time. I felt bad, because they were pretty obviously struggling with anxiety, but it got to the point where I dreaded seeing them coming because I knew we were about to have another lengthy, self-flagellating post-mortem on some passing comment. (They both also had a really hard time Letting It Drop.) It did help me learn to worry less about my own foot-in-mouth moments, because I so rarely even remembered the context of the thing they were apologizing for that I figured other people must feel the same way about conversations they had with me.

  28. What Mrs. Morley said. It’s a different kind of “I’m sorry”.

    That last sentence is a little worrisome to me, though. It’s not really on SFOF to avoid sad conversations so that other people won’t be worried about them in retrospect, any more than it was on you to avoid mentioning a pet that died. The fact that it was a big deal for them doesn’t mean that you’ve been accused of hurting them.

    1. They shouldn’t avoid it so that other people won’t be worried about them in retrospect; they should avoid it so they don’t get sad.

    1. Of course no one should ever have to feel bad about feeling sad. I don’t think anyone was suggesting SFOF should.

  29. Honestly, if it’s been more than a week or two, I’d say just let it go. Resolve to be better about whatever you said by all means, but bringing things up from months or years ago so that you can apologize for something the other person probably doesn’t even remember doesn’t seem likely to improve anything. People change their beliefs over time, and everyone has periodic flare-ups of foot-in-mouth disease. If the other person had judged you that harshly for it, they probably wouldn’t still be friends with you.

  30. Okay, speaking as someone who has forty-six years of regular social fumbles behind her (I’m on the autism spectrum; I speak “social” as a second language at best), here’s a few basic tips I’ve worked out over the years.

    1) If you’re certain you’ve stuffed up, apologise as soon as possible (the degree of the stuff-up determines just how necessary or urgent the apology is, but the basic rule is “the sooner, the better”). Statute of limitations on minor things is about a week, major things can be lifetime.
    2) If you’re not sure you’ve stuffed up, asking whether you have is generally better than hoping that you haven’t. If nothing else, it collapses the probability space from a vague morass of “maybes” into a definite “yes I did” or “no I didn’t”.
    3) Everyone stuffs up. It’s part of being human. (If you meet a person who is convinced they have never socially misstepped or mis-spoken at some time, you’re probably talking to a narcissist).
    4) If you’re prone to brooding over old mistakes and similar, please keep in mind that guilt and regret do not substitute for a time machine, and therefore cannot change the past. Trust me, I KNOW they don’t work in that regard through extensive exploration of the possibility. If you have the sort of jerk!brain which pulls out the Failure Tapes (the life-record of every single time you stuffed up or made an error) and plays them regularly in the main hall of the Grand Ol’ Embarrassing Recollection, one thing I’ve found which does work to bring the Tapes to a glitching halt is asking “what can I do about this right now?”. (This is particularly the case when your jerk!brain decides to wake you up at three in the morning for such an event).
    5) If the other person involved says “don’t worry about it”, take them at their word, and don’t mention it again.
    6) If this is a regular thing, warning people ahead of time is generally an easy way of reducing the stress for both yourself and them. Just saying “I sometimes miss social cues. If I’ve upset you, please let me know, so I can avoid doing that in future” means you’re warning them ahead of time, and they know if you’ve said something which comes out wrong, it probably wasn’t meant in a malicious or nasty fashion.
    7) The best (and most sincere) form of apology is not doing it again.
    8) Caution because Humans: Some people are going to be offended no matter what you do. There is no way of getting through life without some form of social misstep.

  31. So You Want To Apologize To Somebody

    I have delivered a ton of apologies, some good ones and some bad ones. Here are some questions I learned to ask myself before apologizing to somebody:

    1. How long has it been? How likely is it that they will know what I’m talking about if I mention it? If it was in recent memory and you think they are still thinking about it, proceed to #2.
    2. How big a deal was it? The largeness of the deal should be directly proportionate to the statute of limitations. For example, knocking their spoon off the table with your elbow has a one-minute window. Knocking their lamp off the deck warrants helping them clean up the lamp, and then maybe a follow-up apology within the week if y’all left on unhappy terms. If you are still in the window, continue to #3.
    3. Do I know Why The Thing Was Bad? “Because I am shitty/awkward/stinky” does not count. How did the Thing affect them? Once you figure that out, go to #4.
    4. Am I apologizing to absolve or to acknowledge my guilt? Sincerity is necessary. If it’s the first one, pause until it becomes the second one.

    Assuming 1-4 have all been completed and Operation: Apologize is still underway, here is how you do it.

    – Use “I” statements. That’s where this whole “sorry you got upset at my joke” gets bounced from the club.
    – Make it snappy. No derailments into how bad and shitty you are for doing this. No apologies for apologizing. No backstories or excuses. Two to three sentences should suffice.
    – Do NOT make excuses. Include an explanation (a) if they ask for it, or (b) if the explanation would shed necessary light on the situation.
    – Then listen.
    – If they are still angry, don’t keep badgering them about it.

    Template: “Amount of time ago, I did a Thing. Sorry for the Thing, and here’s why the Thing was bad.” Then listen.

    You: Shay, I’m really sorry I implied the award you were getting wasn’t a big deal. I thought you were worried about all the attention, and was trying to downplay it! Of course you deserve the award. Your art is amazing.
    Shay: Thank you. I appreciate the apology.

    You: Tammy, I wanted to apologize again for breaking your vase. Your mom was standing right there, and I know she gave it to you.
    Tammy: It’s fine. My mom is the worst. I was mostly mad about the mess.

    You: Hey, Sam, I’m sorry I’ve been avoiding you. You were really honest with me and it was mean to leave you hanging.
    Sam: It’s been like three weeks. What’s been going on?
    You: [Explanation.]
    Sam: I see. Well, you really hurt my feelings. I get where you’re coming from, but I’m gonna need some space for a while.
    You: I understand. [Then you give them space.]

    You: Dad, I’m sorry things didn’t work out at the law firm. I know you pulled a favor with Mr. Abdul to get me an interview.
    Dad: I have been crying for days.

    You: Mihn ji, I’m sorry for snapping at you the other night. I shouldn’t have taken how stressed I was out on you.
    Mihn ji: Don’t worry about it! I should have read the room before I came out in my clown outfit.

    You: Hey, Gorzon, I’m sorry I interrupted the timeflow ex-conversion the other night. I forgot that running the microwave would short out the disruption hypercurve.
    A space alien: [loud and prolonged fart noise]
    You: I understand. [Then you give them space. Get it? “Space”? Get it?]

    1. This is awesome and I love your examples! I think maybe some things in the one-minute window don’t need to go through the whole process. If it’s something minor and immediately fixable, I think you can have a side loop that goes straight to Reflex Apology. You wouldn’t want to use this for anything serious, but it’s fine for something like knocking a spoon off the table: “Oops, sorry about that, here’s a clean spoon.” Same sort of tone as when you wind up doing the sidewalk dance with someone coming the opposite direction, or if someone asks for the salt and you absentmindedly hand them what is obviously the pepper, that kind of thing.

    2. What if the answer to 4 is “I don’t know how I feel, but she really deserves to hear an apology from me”?

  32. Once when I was in high school, a straight girl apologized to me because she thought she had accidentally said something homophobic in class the day before. I literally didn’t remember what she was talking about, and didn’t think her comment was offensive when she repeated it to me. She was worrying over nothing. But I was one of the only openly gay students in my school and I often felt very isolated and stigmatized, and felt like there was no one sticking up for or caring about me. Her thoughtfulness meant so much to me. More than 10 years on, I still think about this interaction, and try to apply the lesson when I can.

    Obviously, it can’t be applied to every situation and there are some times when apologizing is obnoxious or creepy, and some people may just not feel the same as I did. But it can be nice to know that someone is thinking about you and is concerned about how you feel, or recognizes when they may have done something wrong to you.

  33. One thing that’s important to determine, what do you hope to get from making an apology? To me there’s a big difference between “I may have said something that came across as wrong and would be embarrassing for me” and “I may have said something that’s bothering them”

    Like “I told a mean joke about clowns the other day. I hope no one thinks I’m a clown-hating jerk! I feel so guilty for sounding like a clown hating jerk.” vs. “I told a mean joke about clowns the other day, I forgot Sue really loves clowns. I wonder if I hurt her feelings?”

    The first one is something you should probably deal with on your own and making other people perform the emotional labor of soothing you can be counter-productive. The second is something that can be worth apologizing for, if it has the potential to help the person you hurt.

    Brought to you by – Someone who finds it weird and unsettling when cis people ‘confess’ times they have misgendered people to me, blatantly fishing for me to soothe them and offer them forgiveness. I am neither your priest nor the person you misgendered, this is not my emotional labor to perform.

  34. LW, I feel you.

    And, I can see the risk in bringing stuff up, in that sometimes I’ve had this experience:

    *Says THING*

    *Realises sometime later that THING has at least one —ist or insulting or just plain rude connotation/use*

    *Would like to clarify/apologize. Would NOT like to force person to deal with the —ist/insulting/rude connotation if they weren’t already*

    *Would also not like to give the impression that I think they don’t understand adult conversations without help*

    Something like that? Or for whatever other reason you’re concerned that you’ve caused someone pain, made yourself look like a jerk, or both. But you’re not sure, and leading with an apology can lead to a lot of confusion, tail-chasing, and even the other person feeling like, well, they weren’t upset BEFORE but now they feel like you’re being patronizing or showing off how Sensitive you are?

    So, first, in my experience both the fear I’ve been offensive (and yet nobody has said anything) AND the fear I’ll make it worse by checking in are USUALLY 9/10 my social anxiety to 1/10 actual potential for offense. But the problem there is that knowing I can be overly anxious doesn’t, itself, tell me if this is one of those times.


    I’ve had fairly good success with: “So, that thing I said the other day? What I was trying to say was *paraphrase that I’m as sure as I can possibly be does NOT have an unfortunate interpretation*. So I just want to make sure that’s what you heard.”

    If it was, you’re fine. If it wasn’t, you’re halfway to a decent apology and amends already, by having reached out first with an obvious care for them and desire to make sure you haven’t done harm, and can proceed from there.

  35. Two afterthought/p.s. things because OF COURSE on this topic I’m going to worry that I expressed myself badly:

    1) This assumes that the thing you *meant* to say was an okay thing.

    2) It’s important to make it clear that you’re accepting responsibility for potentially expressing yourself badly, not asking if your comment was Taken Out Of Context or Misinterpreted by them.

  36. Once I was in a group therapy session when I was in a mother & baby unit with severe post natal depression and anxiety. Afterwards I told the facilitator that I felt bad about something I’d said, that it could have been taken the wrong way by another patient. She talked about the different levels of communication: there’s what we say, there’s how we say it, and then there’s our body language, which is the most important. This was so reassuring for me at the time, and has been helpful since then too.

  37. In college, I remember a guy in a class with me made an off-color joke while chatting before class. I don’t remember exactly what it was, something involving ethnic stereotypes, I think. I wasn’t the butt of the joke, so it wasn’t, like, personally offensive, but I just kind of went, “omg I can’t believe you said that!” The next class, he apologized to me, just something along the lines of “Sorry about that, that was dumb, I shouldn’t have said that.” Having been raised in such a way that I basically didn’t know what apologies were, this absolutely blew my mind! It was like, hoooooly shit, you can just….apologize?! Just…take responsibility for your actions, and move forward?!?! Turns out: yes, you can!

    I will also say that in grad school, another fellow student said something about my work that was mildly critical but mostly just uninformed, and I didn’t think much about it. Months later, when we had made friends and grown closer, she apologized for it, and I remembered what she was talking about but really hadn’t given it any more thought or felt any strong emotions about it, and it hadn’t stopped me from wanting to become friends with her. Her apology was also short and to the point, along the same lines of “That was dumb, sorry about that,” and I could very genuinely tell her it was no problem at all, and that was the end of that.

    I’m trying to think of examples of when I’ve used social-awkwardness apologies really effectively like in these two examples, but I can’t, which probably means I need to work on it harder! (I’m now really good at apologizing to loved ones about more serious emotional stuff, though, and it rules! Life is so much easier with apologies in it!)

  38. I used to lose a lot of sleep over comments I’d made that I felt awkward about. In some cases, bringing it up again later helped (especially when it was clearly hurtful), but in most, it made me feel worse and more self-conscious, weak, like I’d made a big deal over nothing. Here’s what helps me now: having compassion for myself about it. If I say something seemingly awkward or stupid that I later regret, I force myself to see my humanity, forgive myself for not always being beautifully eloquent and move on. I realize that I’m usually holding myself to the impossibly high standard of always saying the perfect thing. When I get trapped in that kind of thinking I end up saying not much at all and basically appearing as a non-person, so I forgive myself for fumbling sometimes in my attempts at conversation and self-expression.

  39. A lot of people have tackled this from the “social justice” (not sure of the right phrasing) angle, like you said something bad about a person of a different background (race, ethnicity, etc) but know better now and regret. That’s definitely one possible interpretation.

    I am a little awkward and I have some anxiety, so I immediately thought of a problem I have. I often say something meant in a positive way, or to criticize a specific situation, and realize it could have been interpreted differently later.

    Think of the classic “You look great today!” “What do you mean, don’t I look great everyday?” type of situation. Or “People who talk on the phone with the windows down while driving are jerks! Why do they bother calling, they can’t be understood at all.” “I do that.” That last one actually happened to me a month ago, I kind of asked why the person does that, they didn’t have a good answer.

    Anyway, I agree with what a few posters have said about realizing nobody is thinking about you as much as you are. Also if they know you a little bit, they know you didn’t mean it that way. I am a big fan of saying something specific later on, like “I love your hair” or “Could you recommend your hairdresser please?” that shows you actually do think positively of it. Finally, if it is really egregious, acknowledge the potential other meaning, later or in the moment. If it is later, think carefully about what you are going to say. I try for short, simple, direct statements and clear “positive” words.

    1. This is a good point about accidentally saying something racist/sexist etc. I think try to apologize in the moment if you realize it, but after that just forget it because the other person probably has as well… because unfortunately they expect privileged people to say some terrible shit sometimes… The only way to redeem yourself is to try to be better in the future. Don’t make the other person take care of your emotions.

  40. Depending on the context, if you feel something needs to be said, especially if you don’t feel you have anything to lose, I would try to meet the person in-person or talk over the phone if that’s possible. You might be more likely to be less miscontrued and better to be able to temper yourself. I had to learn this the hard way. I hope you don’t have to.

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