9 ways to spot a genuine apology from a lame excuse

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Apologies are important, because they show that somebody:

  1. Recognizes they’ve done wrong;
  2. Has the courage to own up to it and promise not to do so again.

The problem is that saying sorry isn’t always sincere and way too many people use apologies as a type of lame excuse. 

Those of us who’ve been on the receiving end of a fake or half-a**ed apology are aware of how to spot the typical signs, but some folks are especially good at pretending to be sorry even when they’re not. 

Fortunately there are some really effective ways to tell a genuine apology apart from a slapdash fake “sorry.”

1) It’s voluntary

An apology is never sincere when forced:

It has to be voluntary. 

I completely get the desire to demand that somebody apologize, but the problem is that when you do this there are only two options: 

  1. The person doesn’t apologize and doubles down in their bad actions towards you;
  2. The person apologizes and it’s fake or just a chance for them to make more accusations and false claims against you. 

Before any other considerations this comes first:

An apology has to be voluntary.

2) It’s specific 

“I’m sorry about, uh, that thing…before.”

We’ve all had this type of apology, and it just won’t do. 

It’s so un-specific that even if you both do know what it’s about, it’s basically a way for the apologizer to beg you to move on and forget about it. 

A real apology needs to be specific. 

“I am sorry about X. I know that X was not acceptable. I won’t do X again.”

Not so complicated, really. But this level of specificity is, at minimum, what you should be able to expect from a genuine apology. 

3) It’s unrushed and unconditional

Lame excuses are rushed and hectic. 

A real apology isn’t rushed and is also unconditional. 

This means that it is given whether or not you accept it, and the words of the person apologizing does not shift based on your reaction.

If you accept the apology, they’re still repentant and they won’t do it again…

If you say you need time to think it over and process things, they’re understanding…

4) It’s not overdramatic 

Apologies can get dramatic, especially if it’s a really serious betrayal or harm that’s been done. 

But a real apology isn’t performative

There isn’t crazed shouting, hand-wringing, dramatic pacing and calculated turns with giant gasps and eyes heavenward. 

At least not in any genuine apology I’ve witnessed or received. 

Apologies can be very emotional, obviously, and have tears, raised voices and very fraught emotions: 

But they’re not like something out of a movie. They’re a heavy and often quiet moment that takes place at a level beyond the theatrical or outer, over-the-top expressions of emotion.

5) It leaves no room for buts

If somebody says: “I’m sorry for what I did, but…”

They’re not sorry. 

In fact they’re using the “apology” as a launchpad to excuse what they did and, often, to also attack and disparage you. 

“I’m sorry but” may as well not even have the word “sorry” in it. 

It simply means somebody is not only sorry but is completely egotistically involved in what’s going on and unwilling to truly apologize or let it go.

As PCD Counseling observes:

“‘But’ automatically cancels out an apology, and nearly always introduces a criticism or excuse.”

6) It doesn’t weigh or divide blame

]Many situations have blame to go around.

The person apologizing to you may have legitimate grievances about your words or behavior as well. 

But the apology needs to be about saying sorry, not about hashing out exactly how sorry, or why you should be sorry too. 

If you’re sorry for what you did, you should apologize, too!

But the time in which this other person is apologizing is not about weighing blame or diving up culpability. 

It’s about them owning their apology and saying sorry unreservedly.

7) It’s sincerely vulnerable and humble

An authentic apology requires real humility and vulnerability. 

When somebody says sorry and means it, it can be a really confronting and vulnerable experience. 

They don’t know how you’ll react, and they’re having to let go of being “right” for a moment. 

They are willing to be brave enough to say sorry and to bare their soul at least for a moment in admitting a wrong and trying to make up for it. 

Bestselling author John Amodeo, Ph. D. puts this perfectly:

“A sincere apology requires strength and humility. 

It requires that we rest comfortably (or perhaps a little awkwardly) in a place of vulnerability.

8) It’s built to last 

At the beginning I mentioned that a key part of an apology is the promise not to do it again. 

If someone is sorry but they’re not really specifying that they will avoid doing it again, their apology isn’t worth anything to you. 

In fact, it just serves as a distraction and leading you astray until you might get hurt more. 

This is the most important thing to watch out for when somebody is apologizing:

Have they actually promised not to do it again?

Do you believe them?

Have they broken a similar promise before?

9) It’s forward-looking

Lastly and on a related note is that an apology is forward-looking: 

It points toward a resolution or path forward. 

If you’re a couple, it paves the way to making up or building a better future together. 

If you’re friends, it offers hope of repairing the friendship or finding common ground once again. 

If you’re family, the apology is the start to making amends for the past and really trying to start fresh while still acknowledging the pain and trauma that’s occurred. 

If you’re work colleagues, or an employee and a boss, this apology is a way to repair the work bond and agree to work together positively going forward. 

In other words, this apology isn’t just about expressing regret, it’s also about expressing hope for the future and what can be improved and accomplished down the road. 

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