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Responding to an apology—do words matter?

Responding to an apology—do words matter?

Have you noticed how much we seem to police our speech these days? It seems we’re constantly told what we should or should not say, what’s appropriate or inappropriate. And we’re held to a high standard. Some mistakes are costly.

In the last 10 years, I’ve had the privilege to travel to Europe a few times. I’m always glad to go England, because they speak English there. While I’ve studied other languages, I can’t speak anything other than English. So traveling to England is much more comfortable for me than other places I’ve gone.

Even so, I’ve learned a few things about how I should police my own speech while traveling in England. Not everything I mean when I say a word means what I think it means in England. For example, as a father of young children I might talk about a stroller – but in England it’s called a “pram.” I might talk about changing my child’s diaper – but in England it’s called a “nappy.” I might talk about a pacifier – but in England it’s called a “dummy,” which might be a word of offense here in America.

Of course, even though I used some wrong words from time to time, my mistakes were completely unintentional. You might say they were well-intentioned, as I was just trying to make my way through the world in an unfamiliar place with what I thought was nevertheless a very familiar language.

This got me thinking about some of the other things we say that, while well-intentioned, might in fact communicate things which, were we aware of it, we would not want to be saying.

Imagine that a friend of yours has realized they did something to hurt your feelings, and so they offer an apology by saying, “I’m sorry.” Because you’re both friends, and perhaps because you think whatever they did was no big deal, you offer a typical response: “That’s okay.”

This response is unquestionably well-intentioned. It’s no different than saying “No worries” or “No big deal” or something similar. But have you ever noticed that such phrases might not be the best response to an apology? What if when someone says, “I’m sorry,” the best response might be to forgive them? What if, when we respond with “that’s okay,” we in fact negate their apology? I mean that our friend has recognized the action as not okay, and so offered an apology, but our response of “that’s okay” ignores that recognition or entirely refuses to agree with it.

Of course, this is all unintentional. It’s just like my using the wrong words in England. We take our language for granted, using it habitually without thinking. But what if our well-intentioned sayings and responses, like “that’s okay” when someone apologizes, have unintentional consequences?

Let’s think about this a different way. When Jesus lived, he forgave the sins of humans around him. He also told his followers to do the same. I was compelled to think more deeply about this recently as I am trying to use my words more intentionally.

Jesus recognized that in forgiving another you’re going further than just letting them off the hook; you’re fully acknowledging their apology. You’re also saying something significant about your relationship with them: forgiveness means you’re not counting their offenses against them. In fact, you’re telling them, “Your slate is clean with me.” This is the same effect as when Jesus forgives us – our slate is clean with him.

At the very least, this indicates that forgiveness is actually a big deal and that it matters when we respond to others. Saying “I forgive you” when someone apologizes would truly honor the fact that they’ve apologized and acknowledged a wrong they believe they’ve committed.

When I consider it this way, it makes me think that Jesus just might be on to something.

This post reflects the views oft he author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on forgiveness from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.

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Chad Lakies teaches Religion at Concordia University in Portland, OR. He’s into coffee, beer, drumming, video games, and buying more books than he has time to read.

2 Comments

  1. Hi, Chad! Thanks for the thoughtful post. I think you’re right that there is something important in acknowledging what another person has expressed in their apology—that they recognize that their actions were not okay. I’m not sure, however, that acknowledging that they think their actions might have been wrong means that we have to agree with them. Of course, even in cases where we don’t think the other person did anything wrong, we could still say, “I forgive you,” but this generally connotes that we think they did something that needs to be forgiven. In cases where we want to convey to them that we don’t think that what they did was wrong or that it didn’t harm us, could it be appropriate to say “That’s okay” or “That’s okay, but I appreciate the apology”? In the right contexts, do you think this can still get across that we acknowledge that they think that their actions were not okay but that we’re not counting their alleged offenses against them?

  2. Hi Jen! Sorry for the delayed reply — I had some trouble with my credentials for logging into the comments, but all is well now :).

    I think I agree with you. In this sort of circumstance I would usually reply that there is no need for an apology. In that regard, I think that we can still hear and honor the words of the other — they are trying to acknowledge that they believe they did something wrong. Yet we simply and gently let them know that in fact, they didn’t actually do anything that requires an apology. Then I might go on to offer further explanation, since this sort of thing is always going to be situational.

    I hope that makes sense. Thanks so much for reading!

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