The Perils of the Fauxpology (Or How NOT to Fix Things When You’ve Hurt Someone)

Of all the places we spend time, you would think that churches would be places where people understand conflict and know how to work through it in positive ways, wouldn’t you? Seems sensible enough, but my experience is that churches, which typically lack HR departments and similar “safety valves” found in other settings, are among the worst. And they are particularly bad when it comes to the non-apology, or what I’ll call the fauxpology.  Come to think of it, some of the most egregious and knuckleheaded examples of fauxpologies are ones I’ve heard in church. But more on that later.

So what is a fauxpology? Definitions vary, but we all know it when we see or hear it. It’s the classic non-apology. Often couched in the language of contrition, it avoids saying anything of substance. Our society is replete with examples: “I’m sorry if I made mistakes,” or, “I’m sorry you were upset.”

Of course, that begs the issue: What is the real value of an apology? Done right, an apology can be tremendously healing for both sides. Indeed, having practiced law for many years, I am astonished to this day by how many lawsuits get filed where all the plaintiff really wants is an apology. Similarly, a great many cases in which the defendant obviously was going to pay, and pay big, have been resolved when an apology was offered. Clearly, in many cases, people view an apology as worth more than an economic recovery.

But for these goals to happen, the apology must be sincere. This typically means that it must include:

• An acknowledgement of the harm that was caused.

• An empathy for the hurt or suffering the other person has experienced.

• Restitution, or making the other person whole again, or as whole as possible under the circumstances.

• Genuine contrition, including an implicit or express commitment to end the offensive behavior.

The commitment to ending the offensive behavior is particularly important, for if the person who has been hurt sees the behavior repeated in the future, she or he is likely to conclude that the apology was insincere.

In some cases, the fauxpology comes about because the person offering it simply isn’t very socially adept. In a great many more cases, people’s egos creep into things, and they just aren’t comfortable acknowledging their bad behavior.

In still other cases, the fauxpology is more malevolent, in that it attempts to sandbag the dispute. In these cases, it’s quickly becomes clear that the culpable party has simply tossed the words, “I’m sorry,” out there in an effort to move past the dispute. One clergyperson I know, when confronted with incontrovertible evidence of his misconduct, responded with a hasty, “Well, I’m sorry.” Leaving aside the fact that this person consistently prefaces sentences with “Well,” when he doesn’t like the topic, saying, “Well, I’m sorry,” doesn’t demonstrate the empathy or understanding needed to promote reconciliation. Indeed, such an “apology” just fans the flames, because it confirms what others have suspected all along, which is that there is a dearth of sincerity.

In other cases, the fauxpology is even more malevolent, in that it tries to shift blame to the hearer. “I’m sorry you were upset, but…,” is the language often used here. In those cases, the implicit conclusion is that the hearer wouldn’t be upset if they just understood what had really happened. Thus, the reasoning goes, there’d be no reason for an apology if the hearer weren’t  friggin’ stupid in the first place.

Particularly upsetting is the “empty words,” fauxpology. These typically involve artful choice of words, but give away little. For example, in one situation with which I am familiar, the priest in question said, “I’m sorry for my inexpert response.” This, despite the fact that her objectionable behavior was both deliberate and malicious. Thus, the fauxpology is doubly offensive, for it suggests that not only is there nothing to be sorry about, but also that the recipient is so damned dumb that they aren’t likely to even recognize that they have not received an apology.

Needless to say, in cases where the fauxpology tries to shift the blame, or says nothing at all amidst a sea of pretty words, the recipient often is enraged. Many an otherwise good apology, and the person offering it, have gone down in flames due to the inclusion of “and,” or “but,” or “however,” or “if.” And the “pretty words,” fauxpology not only inevitably gets rejected, but it often hardens the position of the recipient, resulting in a conflict that is almost impossible to resolve.

By the way, an apology can be sincere, even if the person offering it is unsure of his or her own culpability. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “I am so very sorry I have hurt you. How can I make this up to you?” This simple acknowledgement can open doors to further discussion, to healing, and to reconciliation.

Nor is there anything wrong in going above and beyond. If, for example, I know I have hurt a friend, there likely is nothing improper about including her family members in the apology. Or, as a mentor of mine used to say, “It’s never wrong to do right.”

One final observation: An apology, done right, often allows the offeror to make a clean break of things. In short, it offers healing to all who come in contact.

So, next time you’re tempted to minimize the harm you’ve caused, to brush things aside, or to offer a lame fauxpology, consider whether it’s in your best interest to take a deep breath, think carefully about the situation, and see if a genuine apology might not be the better path to take. And if you’re clergy or a lay leader, maybe it’s worth talking with others about the real benefits of real apologies.

About Eric Bonetti

I'm a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids' cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I'm also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.
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