The Apology Contract

A binding contract has three elements: offer, consideration, and acceptance—all of which must exist among mutually assenting parties. These elements, in some form or another, have existed since time immemorial. A contract of sale, for example, contains an offer (the good for sale at a price), the consideration (the money exchanged for the good), and the acceptance (the actual mutual agreement to exchange the good for the price).

Many of our social interactions implicitly follow a similar structure because they rely upon offering, considering, and accepting one another’s social cues in more-or-less formulaic ways. Some of these interactions are rigidly ritualistic—”thank you,” “you’re welcome”—and some are not (flirting, for example).

I have read several articles on the best way to apologize, with which I agree, and which address the person giving the apology with humility and sincere intent, acknowledging the harm done, and reducing further harm. (One such popular example was written by John Scalzi. Another good example aimed at children comes from a parenting blog.)

However, I have lately come to worry that the act of the apology often still imposes a contract-like, ritualistic exchange. On receiving an apology, I have in the past found myself at odds with every instinct in my body to assuage the apologizer who, having recognized their fault and promising in good faith to do better, awaits something like an absolution from me before moving on.

The formula for how we’re taught to apologize, as children, goes:

— I’m sorry.

— It’s okay.

I’ve tried withholding that second part of the exchange as I’ve gotten older. Sometimes I don’t feel okay. Sometimes it’s not okay. Maybe I need space or time to get there. Maybe I just want to move on without needing to perseverate on the feelings of the person who wronged me.

This is especially difficult for an in-person conversation. Without the expected words, “it’s okay,” or, “it’s fine,” in my mouth, what am I to say? I don’t necessarily want to prolong the moment, either. I often have an interest in moving past the moment, but I don’t have some alternative wording that isn’t focused on the feelings of the apologizer.

When I don’t automatically say, “it’s okay,” a loaded pause often seems to follow. The apologizer feels they have done everything right, and I haven’t followed through on my end of the apology. They wait for me to give them some way to get past the moment, and when I don’t offer that back, they also don’t know how to continue.

The ritual of the apology feels a lot like a social contract because we’re conditioned to treat it as such from a young age, to offer some comfort to someone who has apologized and meet them part way. However, this is no contract. The formula, like so many social rituals, instead imposes an expected response on the recipient. There’s not necessarily mutual assent.

What I have read about the best way to offer an apology sometimes, but doesn’t always, offers a final step I believe is extremely important—once given, expect nothing back. Any forgiveness, grace, or acceptance on the part of the recipient is a gift, not an exchange. Beyond that, though, you need not expect any response whatsoever, not even acknowledgement. The apology, for the one giving it, is both the understanding of harm and the promise to reject furthering it. It is not a request.

What’s more, I can’t recall seeing anyone write for the person receiving the apology. I address you now: You owe nothing. Take comfort, if you can, that someone has seen how they have harmed you. Find peace, if you can, in the closure they offer. Exchange what you like, and repair the relationship if you want it. But your duty to them ended when the apologizer wronged you in the first place.