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Photo of a text message that says I'm sorry.


Sorry Sorry Sorry

Sometimes, alas, an apology is called for. Even among the best people.

A bit like true love, the course of a social situation may not always run smooth. For example: You know that party last week? What you recall of it, anyway? Is it perhaps possible that you might have said or done something you really wish you hadn’t? That isn’t you at your best?

Sometimes, alas, an apology is called for. Even among the best people. Before launching right into it, it’s helpful to figure out the appropriate medium for your apology.

Handwritten letter. This is the most potent way to apologize. We rarely write letters these days, which means there’s something about a hand-addressed missive on serious stationery that says, “This is important.” You found a stamp and everything. If you have done something truly awful, a letter is how you apologize. If what you have done is only moderately awful, you can send a postcard featuring a poop emoji holding a sign that says “Sorry I was a giant turd” on it. Or, you know, some other postcard.

Email. If you have a lot of background info to impart or explaining to do (though again, be wary of too much explanation, which can often read as making excuses for yourself), email is a good medium. Email gives you space to unroll and explore without all the weighty import of a handwritten note. Be sure to conclude with “You don’t have to respond to this.” You’re the one who needs to sit with discomfort when you’ve screwed up; you do not get to ask for a response. You do not get to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift to be granted, and it’s rude to ask for a gift.

You do not get to ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift to be granted, and it’s rude to ask for a gift.

Text. This is often your best apology choice in our digital age. It’s informal but thoughtful, and it doesn’t have a ton of baggage. The person has the option to respond to you or not, on the spot or not. It’s best for smaller offenses. A texted apology says: “I know I screwed up, but I also don’t want to make you uncomfortable by turning this into a thing.”

Face-to-face. The single most essential caveat about a face-to-face apology: the other person needs to be able to walk away from you. For instance, do not apologize in a car when you’re going to be sitting next to that person for the next twenty minutes; you could make them uncomfortable and they’re stuck. If someone walks away as you’re trying to apologize, you have chosen the wrong way to apologize! Let them go! Do not follow! Talk to an apology-savvy friend about the specifics of your situation and consider giving the other person some time before you try again—in a text, an email, or a handwritten card, NOT face-to-face. The very last thing you want is for the other person to feel cornered. And if the person doesn’t want to talk to you, period, respect that. Also consider whether your apology might have an audience (the other parents at the PTA meeting, fellow art-lovers appreciating the glory of Water Lilies at the museum)—even if you don’t mind, it might be awkward for the onlookers and for your intended recipient.

Regardless of how you apologize, DO NOT seek absolution from the other party or provide a lot of context in your missive. Again, you’re supposed to be groveling here, not explaining or asking for a gift—a gift the person might not think you deserve.

That done, you can meet at another party without awkwardness.

Alejandra Compoverdi, author of First Gen: A Memoir
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