Post No.: 0500
Conflict may be inevitable at times (e.g. sibling rivalry, parent-child arguments) but it’s always resolvable. Even other, non-human, primates often seek reconciliation with their opponents rather than just move apart. Even old war adversaries in international armed conflicts have later become strong allies. Overwhelmingly most people around the world do want peace.
The ‘embarrassment’ body language signal is a form of showing one’s apology, and other people respond to it by punishing the embarrassed person less and forgiving them more easily. The signal is a form of appeasement, submission, humility and modesty. And it defuses hostilities.
Embarrassment, in this context of expressing humility, signals regret and is a reparative and de-escalating emotion whenever one has committed, or has potentially committed, a social faux pas where an altercation is otherwise a possible outcome. When we express embarrassment while we’re trying to squeeze past someone on the train (when social distancing rules are not in force) or some other social faux pas, we avoid conflict in these tense moments rather than invite it. This signal or gesture is used far more commonly than we may think in social situations because we do it subconsciously and react to it subconsciously. When we see this submissive signal, we subconsciously feel at ease and ease off. People who show it when appropriate are more likely to be liked, trusted, forgiven and given more rather than fewer resources by others.
The signal is also used to display tacit gratitude and appreciation towards other people (e.g. when someone does a favour for us we didn’t ask for but appreciate). When playing a game, we might signal embarrassment if we beat someone considered of a higher status than us (at that game at least) to show that we’re not trying to challenge or take their limelight. Perhaps we’re acknowledging that we just got lucky. A self-deprecating story triggers trust and cooperation. Showing embarrassment in the form of humility when one wins some kind of unexpected award like ‘Employee of the Month’ is to signal to others ‘don’t attack me’ for being singled out or for standing out from the group. For being social creatures, people want to show that they’re still a part of the social group they want to belong to. Humans have evolved mainly for making peace in order to maintain group unity because people who are alone are more vulnerable.
Some other animals conduct in (small scale) wars too, not just humans, but many also conduct in egalitarianism too. It’s nature and nurture, not nature versus nurture. Humans are animals that learn by copying, so whether people lean towards being combative or peaceful depends a lot on their nurture/environment – and so arguably nurture, more than nature, shapes these particular attitudes of different individuals; especially the earlier the nurturing lessons and experiences take place in one’s life and the more prevalent a social norm is immediately surrounding one’s current life. It’s not just genetics – culture (which is absorbed from our environment) shapes everyone’s behaviours too.
Bonobos are typically far less aggressive than chimpanzees, but even within groups of them, the decision to fight or reconcile is shaped by environmental factors such as the examples set by others and how plentiful resources are. (Conflict is more likely to occur when resources are considered scarce – we logically need to fight over scarce resources in order to survive. A relatively small percentage of people hoarding a vast amount of resources for just themselves will therefore make resources more scarce for the rest of the population – thus a world where attitudes of excessive selfish greed are discouraged, and a world that is far more relatively egalitarian, would hypothetically reduce the number of conflicts in the world?)
Apologies signify remorse, empathy with the victims and indicate a plan to remedy the situation. Genuine apologies mean a lot to the victims and make them feel better than without them, and they also make the apologiser feel authentic pride too (as in non-narcissistic pride) even though apologies can sometimes feel hard to give. Well not all things that make us feel overall happy in life feel good or positive whilst they’re being performed, and not all things that feel good or positive whilst they’re being performed makes us feel overall happy in life – a parallel for many people is exercise, which feels tough to even consider starting, never mind do, but the benefits to one’s overall health is unquestionable; and although stuffing one’s furry face with chips and burgers everyday is very pleasurable for most of us, this pleasure doesn’t typically translate to us being healthier or therefore happier in the bigger picture or long term.
An effective apology expresses remorse, humility or shame, takes responsibility, acknowledges the offence was done and was wrong, offers empathy and an explanation (but not an excuse), takes corrective action and offers atonement to undo the harm if possible. It reassures a lower likelihood of reoccurrence so that the victim is safe from a repeat offence, it affirms that the parties have shared values, and it is directed to the victims personally. An effective apology also restores dignity to the victims after their humiliation or insult, validates that the victim was not responsible, and it’s reparative so that the offender suffers some form of punishment and/or the victim receives some form of compensation. It fosters dialogue to allow the parties (especially the victim) to express their feelings, and allows the victim to grieve over his/her losses.
Remember that apologies are for the victim rather than for yourself, so recognise when they might not be ready to receive one from you. But if you are the victim then accepting an apology is the most effective route to forgiveness – it’s a vital social skill and it’ll improve everyone’s lives because having more friends, or at least fewer enemies, is a less stressful and therefore happier existence for everyone. Commonly, a relationship strengthens from the honesty, courage, generosity and humility of a genuine apology given by an offending party to the victim party.
Saying, “Sorry but…” just instantly undoes an apology with the word ‘but’. Saying, “I’m sorry if you feel that way” is often said in legal or political contexts in order to not explicitly accept liability for an error. However this really annoys other people! It’s worse than no apology because it tries to counter-blame the person for feeling a certain way! Apologies are a tacit admission of guilt hence why public figures such as politicians are sometimes in a bind as to whether to say sorry or not. If they don’t then they’ll be criticised for it, but the dust may eventually settle down and the issue will be yesterday’s news. Or if they do then they could become forever associated with and mocked for the error they’re admitting to, which in some cases is more terminal for their career. So they’ll often try to give an indirect apology along the lines of ‘your custom is important to us’ (a cliché used in business contexts) and they’ll ‘endeavour to improve matters’. The offender might even point out that ‘thousands of customers have been happy with us’, but this means utterly nothing to the victim in his/her individual case. Apologies from people in positions of higher power can sometimes be treated with cynicism too. Thus people in such positions should not just apologise in the right way but take responsibility and offer compensation or reparations.
Bad apologies mainly fail to acknowledge the error or responsibility (e.g. fail to make clear who was the offender and who was the victim, or fail to make clear what was the specific and full offence), they are given in a passive voice with vague or incomplete language (e.g. saying, “For whatever I did” or, “Mistakes were made” or, “If mistakes were made”), and they try to question or minimise the damage of the offence (e.g. saying, “It was only…”). They might apologise to the wrong party, for the wrong offence, be apologies made via a proxy (from the wrong person e.g. a spokesperson rather than the CEO), and could be self-serving (e.g. for the sake of the offender’s public image or because they want something in return).
Feeling sorry alone doesn’t always concede responsibility. A bad explanation is something like, “I just snapped” or, “I wasn’t thinking.” Good apologies are not defensive in any way or merely face-saving – they are not about the offender but about the victim. A good apology shows that the fuzzy offence was unintentional and not personal, or if it was then one has changed one’s attitude since the incident and is repentant, and shows that the offence is unlikely to ever reoccur. It will outline how it won’t happen again. It shows no defiance (e.g. saying, “I’m not like this normally”) nor makes the offender feel like the victim or blames the victim. Stating, “There was no excuse” is better than a shallow, fraudulent or manipulative excuse such as claiming, “It was the case of a few bad apples.”
A business might need to take a financial hit to put their money where their apology is (e.g. offer a customer a voucher). Then they must never repeat the same mistake again because being given a third chance is unlikely.
Often a formal apology is worse than an informal one because the former can sometimes sound insincere, as if done out of obligation rather than because it was heartfelt. It might be because a rehearsed apology sounds less authentic – yet if you truly care about something, you would want to rehearse it many times to make sure you get it right rather than try to wing it without preparation. But rehearsing it too much can be like hearing a joke too often, where you cease to emotionally respond to it anymore in delivery. Whatever the case, make sure your body language and tone is congruent with the words of your apology.
Some situations do make apologies difficult to give (e.g. during the middle of an ongoing war or during a lawsuit when it could be used against you). But afterwards – although it could take time – we should look to both apologise to and forgive others, and forgive ourselves too if we’re truly regretful.
Forgiveness doesn’t have to only come after receiving an apology though. Forgiveness – rather than reconciliation – is appropriate if the offender is unrepentant, still dangerous or deceased, so that the victim can move on in his/her life. Thus the act of forgiving is as much for ourselves as for those who’ve offended us. Apologies, though, are almost always necessary if reconciliation or the need to coexist in a trusting relationship again is sought for or required.
The time when we feel we can trust again depends a lot on our own beliefs about whether the moral character of people can change over time or not, as well as of course on the actions of others. So an apology can be more effective if you can highlight how people can change or how you yourself have changed, adapted and grown before or since.
Woof. Apologies are vitally important for social unity and peace, and there are good ways and bad ways to make an apology.