Top Ten Ways To Tell If an Apology Is Genuine

 “Words, words, words. I’m so sick of words!”, said Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady as her would-be suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill professed to her his undying love. Talk is cheap when it comes to love; it’s just as inexpensive for apologies. Have you ever wondered whether an apology was genuine or whether somebody just wanted to get himself out of the sticky situation where his poor choices placed him? Have you ever thought: ” Your apology is just a bunch of words. Who cares?”

Eventually,we all must answer the difficult question: “Does he really mean it?” The folks who pass on whether some has the character and integrity to be a practicing lawyer have the same problem. It’s not widely known, but in order to practice law, one must not only graduate from an accredited law school, one must not only pass the bar examination, but one must also be approved by a committee that assesses one’s “character and fitness” to practice law.

Now, none of us is perfect, including every person who applies to be admitted to the practice of law. Sometimes, though, an applicant has done something really bad–sometimes downright illegal–that would disqualify him or her from becoming a lawyer unless the applicant can show that he or she has changed and that the applicant is sincerely sorry for the low-down thing that he or she did. The authors of a recent law review article identify the problem:

Once an applicant’s conduct raises an issue of fitness to practice law, especially if prior misconduct involved unlawful acts, he or she may be obliged to demonstrate rehabilitation. One significant factor in this determination is whether the applicant expresses and demonstrates remorse.*

Like Eliza Doolittle, a Committee on Character and Fitness will not be satisfied with “words, words, words”. The law-review article’s authors found, however, that across the nation these committees use no consistent criteria in deciding whether an applicant’s apology is genuine. The committees seem to be just as clueless as the rest of us when it comes to deciding if an apology is genuine. The authors came to the rescue with a proposal for standardized factors to be used when deciding if a bar applicant really means it when he or she says “I’m sorry”. 

Those factors inspired the following list of Top Ten Ways To Tell If an Apology Is Genuine:

  1. Did he accurately describe what he did? Is he minimizing his involvement? Does he mischaracterize his intentions? Is he offering up some vague, less-than-specific description of his offense? (“I’m sorry for what happened.”)
  2. Did he accept blame? This is different from accepting responsibility. He may be willing to accept the consequences for an act but still deny that he deserves blame. It’s also different from expressing sympathy. (“I’m sorry you’re in pain.”)
  3.  Did he identify the harm he caused you? Does he understand–and is he willing to admit to–the injury and difficulty you went through because of what he did?
  4. Did he identify the principle that made his action wrong? As in “I know I shouldn’t have told you that because it was a lie and it’s wrong to lie.” Does he know that theft is wrong? That a husband has no right to control his wife’s conduct through violence or any other means? That a woman has the right to say “No” at any time? What is the ethical principle that he violated? 
  5. Did he say he was sorry? Yes, talk is cheap but that doesn’t mean that words are worthless. Words are powerful. It’s tough to spit out the words “I’m sorry. ” instead of just saying “I’d like to apologize.”
  6. How has he acted since the apology? Does he keep on making the same poor choice? Or has he resisted opportunities to do the same thing all over again?
  7. Did he make things right? Has he done his best to make you whole again? Pay back what he stole? Fix what he broke? Go back to the people to whom he spread that malicious gossip?
  8. Why is he apologizing now? Is he just trying to get something from you? Is someone forcing him to apologize? Is he expressing sorrow just to get out himself of trouble?
  9. Does he look and act like he’s sorry? What do his emotions, his demeanor, his body language tell you? Does he act like someone who’s really sorry or like someone just trying to wriggle out from a tight spot?
  10. What does your “gut” tell you? When we say we feel something “in my gut” or “I just have a gut instinct”, it just means that our common sense and everyday experience are  combining to tell us something. A gut feeling is the sum of many reactions to subtle clues that our brain processes on a less-than conscious level, like when we say: “Oh, I don’t know. Something just doesn’t seem right.” What is your gut telling you?

What Eliza eventually told Freddy was this:

Don’t talk of stars burning above;
If you’re in love, show me!
Tell me no dreams filled with desire.
If you’re on fire, show me!

When one apologizes to us, he or she will have to do exactly that if the apology is to be accepting as genuine and sincere. Show me. Show me by not just your words, but by your actions, your demeanor, your tone of voice, your understanding. Show me that you’re really sorry. 

*”Apologies and Fitness to Practice Law: A Practical Framework for Evaluating Remorse in the Bar Admission Process”, Simon, Smith and Negowetti, Journal of the Professional Lawyer:

“Show Me!”, from My Fair Lady:


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