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How to Say Sorry When Cancel Culture is Unforgiving

What counts as a proper apology? A psychologist explains.
by Ara Eugenio
Aug 26, 2021

In Netflix's ode to academia "The Chair", a professor's apology for a Nazi satire gone awry was rejected by his students for being insincere. He got cancelled and it will take more than a meek "I'm sorry" for Gen Z to forgive him.

As hard as it is to put sorry into words, it's even harder in today's age of cancel culture, where sincerity is judged using twenty-somethings' progressive views. 

It's particularly relatable to the Philippines, where government officials are known to commit non-apology apologies, and celebrity “notes app” and YouTube vlog sorrys have pretty much become a meme of their own. Cancel culture does not forgive easily, if at all. 

What about apologies that make them hard?

It's both difficult to ask forgiveness, as well as to accept apology, Agnes Agbayani, a clinical psychologist told reportr.

"We have individual differences that have to be taken into context. Differences in terms of personality, values (such as how we were raised), and how we grew up believing about what it means to ask forgiveness and forgive," she said, noting it depends on the gravity of the situation.

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For the person seeking forgiveness, so much consideration goes into the process. For one, some people may not be aware that they did something wrong. "Minsan it's a matter of values or perspective, or pwede rin may  personality disorder yung tao that makes it difficult for them to be sensitive to the feelings of others," Agbayani said.

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When a person does know they've committed a mistake, admitting to it is an even harder challenge with an inflated ego. There's also that fear of the consequences.

"You know you did something wrong and it's not just the person you have to please but the community that the person belongs to," she said. For example, if it's an administrative mistake, you can be terminated from the job, or if it's a criminal act, you can get sued or jailed. In the case of social media, you can get "cancelled" by the internet. 

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Other reasons why apologizing is hard:

  • People don't like the thought of submitting to the whims or conditions of the other person
  • They also fear that their mistake will never be forgotten, that their mistake can be taken against them in the future
  • No one wants to be seen as a person who's done something wrong

On the part of the person who was done wrong, apologies are also hard as it depends on what they believe forgiveness entails, Agbayani said.

"If forgiveness for you is forgetting, you wouldn't want to forget the wrong done to you. You may feel like forgiving so easily would invalidate what you feel," she said, noting it's even harder when the mistake caused long-existing trauma to resurface. 

Some also don't want to be seen as weak or quick to forgive, fearing they will be reduced as someone who can easily be taken advantage of, she said. 

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"Forgiveness is really a personal process, and there needs to be a sense of justice. It's really about letting the person face the consequences, the shame and guilt included. But there should also be a form of healing for the offender because otherwise, that person can just go on and do that to you or someone else again," she said.

So what does a 'proper apology' look like?

Again, asking for forgiveness is trickier on social media, where atoning for your sins can easily become the internet's business. Agbayani gave these tips on how to offer a proper apology:

Examine yourself first

When you've been called out already, look inwards and reflect on what you did wrong. Apologies are not an avenue for you to defend yourself and shift the blame. Identify what you did that made the person react that way.

Try empathy

Imagine if it were you that was harmed. Where are they coming from? Look at what you've done in relation to their context, their past or their personality and the values you know they hold dear.

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When saying sorry be specific about the wrong that you did

 You cannot ask for forgiveness without pointing out what it is you're sorry for. Even if it's well-meaning, but there's no acknowledgement, it won't come off as sincere. 

A proper apology has no ifs and buts

When it's clear that you're in the wrong, you cannot justify it with anything else.

Whatever is your context, it may have a bearing but in the process of asking for forgiveness, your apology is not about you. Instead, focus on the harm you did and how you know that person was affected by it. 

Welcome the consequences and be accountable

At the moment of forgiveness, the one who's in pain is the person who was wronged, not your ego or your reputation. The damage you wrought is part of the consequences. Think hard when you know you're doing something wrong because someone could get hurt.

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"Kaya dapat may support group din talaga yung taong nagaask ng forgiveness kasi sila yung tutulong to acknowledge that. If kailangan man magtherapy, sabihin din niya," Agbayani said.

In the apology, there should be assurance for the wronged person that the offense cannot happen again. It's important to let the person know that you'll correct your behavior. 

Be ready for your apology to  be rejected

Forgiving is a personal process. If you need to atone for your mistake until you die, by all means, accept that you have to do it anyway.

"When it's a criminal or administrative act, you have legal measure, of course. Ano yung equivalent n'un na concrete action na pwede when those aren't the case? Kasi it has to go beyond words. The person should see the action kasi words will just be words. It will be dead without action."

The clinical psychologist cited in this story, Agnes Agbayani, MA, RPsy, is the executive director of The Life Changed Recovery Center, a private and professional treatment facility for individuals with addiction, psychiatric conditions, and/or behavioral problems. Call 3415-7964 for inquiries.

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