Towards a taxonomy of apology

What are the elements of an apology? Is there a taxonomy of what is a meaningful apology? This is an attempt to dissect what are the elements of an apology.

This is not an opinion of what is the proper apology to make in all circumstances: sometimes someone is upset at a thing you did, and you really are sorry for how it made them feel, but don’t think it was the wrong action, and maybe aren’t ready to say that you won’t do it again.  I just thought it was interesting to dissect the nature of apology as an exercise in recognizing my own failings (or maybe those of others.)

Here are all the possible elements that might be in an apology that I can think of:

  • Expression of remorse for the action.
  • Expression of regret for one or more outcomes.
  • Explanation of circumstances.
  • Acknowledgment of mistake.
  • Pledge to avoid future mistaken actions.
  • Pledge to amend wrong.
  • Request for forgiveness.

Some people seem to argue that a request for forgiveness should not be part of an apology: given that someone was wronged, it’s unfair to burden that person with the expectation of forgiveness.  I concede that this can be true, but I argue that the appropriateness of a request to forgive depends on the situation.  In many situations, forgiveness is the final restorative act that puts the relationship back on track and gets all parties in the situation back to full functioning.  Forgiveness can be the thing that lets everyone move past the wrong.  Achieving a state of forgiveness is basically the ultimate goal of apology, even if it is sometimes unachievable.

Forgiveness, in this context, is a benefit to both parties.  By granting forgiveness, a wounded party agrees that the wound has been mended and that both parties can work together in the future, or at least part ways without wasting energy on a past grievance.

That said, I think asking for forgiveness is a burden when the wounded party is not ready to forgive; if they are not convinced that the fault has been properly acknowledged and/or remedied.

Likewise, some people seem to feel that an explanation of circumstances should not be part of an apology: “That’s not an apology; it’s an excuse.”  I contend that this also depends on circumstances: If forgiveness is a desirable goal (for one or both parties), then explaining the extenuating circumstances that caused you to do something that you now regret makes it easier for the wounded party to forgive.  Forgiveness can flow from remorse and remedy, but can also flow from understanding.


Simple apology: I’m sorry for what I did.
(Admits mistake and expresses regret.)

Simple apology with forgiveness plea: I’m sorry for what I did. Please forgive me.
(Admits mistake and expresses regret. Optional: Requests forgiveness.)

Standard apology with plea: I am sorry for what I did and the outcomes it caused. Please forgive me; it was wrong to do that.
(Does not admit that the action would be wrong in all circumstances. Asks for forgiveness. Does not pledge to repair harms.)

Restorative apology: I am sorry for the thing I did and the outcomes it caused. I acknowledge that doing that is wrongful and I will not do that thing again. I will do whatever I can to repair the harm I have caused.
(Expresses regret for deed and consequences. Recognizes injustice of the category of action and pledges to change behaviour, and to take restorative action. Avoids encumbering the victim with an implied obligation to forgive.)

Non-apologetic expression of regret for consequences: I’m sorry you felt that way. Alternatively: I’m sorry for how things turned out.
(Does not acknowledge that the action was wrong, nor pledge to avoid doing it again in the future. Implies that fault is with the victim for their reaction.)

Conditional expression of regret: If I did (or said) that, I’m sorry.
(Does not admit that the action even happened.  Favorite among gaslighters and sociopaths.)

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