When I wrote my post on How To Mess Up, I somehow managed to leave out a pretty critical part, which is making amends. I referenced the idea in apologizing and owning your words, stressing that you need to do so in good faith, fully understanding what you’ve done, but how to do you make amends? How do you move forward after messing up?
It’s a two part issue, because amends need to happen, but the person you’ve hurt also needs to respond appropriately.
Amends start with an apology. An apology which is meant. An apology which clearly indicates that you know where you went wrong, how it happened, why it wasn’t acceptable, and why you won’t do it again. An apology which centers responsibility on you and what you did, not on anyone else. An apology which validates the experiences and emotions of the person you hurt.
There’s an example of the kind of apology I’m talking about right in the comments thread on that post; the post was originally titled “How To Fuck Up,” and a commenter mentioned that the F word has some negative/inappropriate connotations, and that it was probably poor word use.
I responded: “I appreciate you bringing that to my attention; you’re right that that particular word is, uhm, kind of monumentally unwise of me to have used here. And I am very sorry that I used it. I should have put more thought into my language, especially given that I was writing a discussion about how to deal with situations in which your actions upset others or are exclusionary.”
Note that I expressed thanks to the commenter for bringing the issue up, showed that I understood where I had gone wrong, and apologized for my action. I also corrected my action; I edited the post to incorporate more appropriate word use (preserving the record of my action, rather than covering it up). Correcting my action was part of the process of making amends, as is using “mess up” instead of “fuck up” in the future, reflecting the fact that I actually learned from the experience, instead of throwing out an apology and considering the matter finished. This was not about my Special Learning Experience, though; it was about the fact that I messed up.
Which brings me to the issue of an appropriate response when apologies and amends are made.
The appropriate response varies, depending on the individual, of course. It’s not my place to tell people how to respond, just like it’s not my place to tell people what language they should use (although I can point out that hurtful language is counterproductive) and it’s not my place to police tone (although I may point out that there are more efficient ways of communicating).
But, I think it’s important to avoid appeasing. The best response may be no response. Or “thank you for acknowledging that and saying that you will work on it.” What you want to avoid, is giving someone a cookie. Because when someone gets a cookie, then it is about the Special Learning Experience, and the cookie mitigates the fact that someone messed up.
We all appease. I have a tendency to appease. I called someone out a few weeks ago on using “asexual” in a way which was not appropriate, and the person said “oh dear, I am really sorry, I didn’t mean it that way,” and I had to physically restrain myself from replying “oh, it’s ok, I know you didn’t mean it.”
Because, here’s the thing: It wasn’t ok. And that person needed to know that. And, I didn’t know that this person didn’t mean it. If the person didn’t mean it, the word wouldn’t have been used in the first place. This person did the right thing by owning up to responsibility and apologizing, which is awesome, but I’m not obliged to hand out a cookie for doing the right thing.
This is an important part of the dialogue.
I believe that we have a responsibility to hold people accountable for their actions, and to point them to resources which they can use when they do not understand where they have gone wrong. By doing so, we make the world a better place, whether we are asking a President to make good on campaign promises, or politely asking a friend not to use the word “crazy” because it is ableist.
But we need to make sure that we use accountability responsibly and in good faith. If we hold someone accountable and then immediately appease when they do the right thing, they aren’t learning anything. Or, rather, they are learning that it’s ok to mess up, because people will be understanding and nice about it. This isn’t to say that you need to be rude to people, but it does mean that you need to make sure that people understand that their actions were wrong and hurtful, full stop, and that apologizing doesn’t magically make it better.
That means that you should not respond by appeasing when someone apologizes. I know, it’s so novel and rare when people actually accept accountability that you want to reward them, but you aren’t helping them by doing that. You’re teaching them to accept appeasement and a cookie when you do that.
As I noted to myself recently when someone called me out on something and I apologized and made amends, I found myself feeling unsettled and upset when I didn’t get a response. And I realized that I was expecting a cookie. I had been conditioned to get a cookie after following the steps to do the right thing, and when I didn’t get a cookie, I started feeling resentful. I had bought into the cycle of offend-apologize-appease. I had to explain to myself why I did not deserve a cookie, and why any expectations I had were unreasonable.
You have no right to a cookie when you mess up. And when you call someone out on a mess up, make sure that you dispense cookies wisely. Don’t hand them out every time. Make sure that people need to go above and beyond the norms of basic expected and appropriate behaviour to get a cookie. Make a cookie special, not a step in the process.