Raising the Tone: Etiquette for Accepting Apologies and Acknowledging Loss

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Marge_Be_Not_Proud_61I was just reading your column about what to say when someone thanks you and it made me wonder: what are the most polite/appropriate ways to respond to someone apologizing? When it’s little things, I’ve taken to saying “you’re good” or “you’re fine.” I think I picked that one up from a teacher who told me you never ask a hurt kid if they’re okay–instead you tell them they’re okay and suddenly they are. (This avoids the crying, whining, etc.) When it’s more serious, I always feel weird saying something like “I accept your apology” so I just end up saying “it’s okay” or “it’s fine,” but I feel like that’s not really adequate. What would you say?

I am 100% sure you mean well, but I can’t actually endorse saying, “you’re okay” to a child who bonked his head on the slide. I mean, whatever, if you say it, no big deal, but since you brought it up… Call me crunchy, but I think that response serves to invalidate the feeling of hurt or surprise the little tot is actually experiencing—yes, he will be okay, but in this moment? He is not really okay. Obviously there’s no need to freak the eff out, but helping the tot to identify how they are feeling can be helpful: “Wow! I bet it was surprising to bonk your head there—it must hurt! Why don’t you take some deep breaths”, etc. A great follow up is: “Are you going to be okay?” This is surprisingly effective (I mean, obviously not 100%, but you know, works more often than not.) The kid stops and thinks. Will I be okay again, someday, in a distant future? He realizes that, yes, odds are that that asshole Charlie will eventually get off the coveted swing and, yes, the dew will dry from the sandbox, and yes, I guess sometime between now and when I eat my delicious and congealed leftover mac n cheeze out of my fucking beautiful shark thermos, I will be okay.

But now: moving right along to the question at hand. (And I am actually sorry for the didactic digression. I apologize. Yikes! What will you say in response? I haven’t told you yet!!! What will you do???) The answer is that it really, really depends. Many people (women? Yes, probably) apologize as a kind of tic. I like your coat, sorry. My bus was late, sorry.  You want me to pass the ketchup? Sorry. Gently set these people straight. “Don’t be sorry, it’s not your fault!” or “There’s nothing to apologize for,” are useful. Don’t be a pedantic jerk about it, just be breezy.

But if someone is legit apologizing, say, for a minor offense—i.e. they have bumped your butt on line for burgers—set them at ease! (This is [almost] always a worthwhile goal, though it need not always be one’s primary goal.) “No problem” is permitted here, as long as it is genuinely delivered. “Don’t worry about it!” is a great option. And now I am going to be honest: I don’t like “you’re good” or “you’re fine.” It is too declaration-from-on-high for my tastes—who are you? The Pope? I guess I just fancy myself a little more democratic than all that—even than a pope who rides the bus.

What if the person has somewhat seriously fucked up? When they have canceled longstanding plans to join you in Capri at an extremely pricey holiday rental? What if they have really hurt your feelings by saying something true-ish but completely unnecessary? Like, “you never find lost things when you’re looking for them because you lack conviction.” (True story. I recently said this. It was not nice or necessary! I had to apologize.) “It’s okay” and “that’s okay,” are solid responses. Replacing “okay” with “fine” cannot be endorsed; fine is a word that is often (not always, but often) disingenuous. But the best thing?

“That’s okay. [It hurt my feelings, but I understand.] Thank you for apologizing.”

The text within the brackets should be used to express your genuine sadness/hurt/disappointment, IF IT IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY TO YOU TO EXPRESS SUCH A FEELING. It should not be passive aggressive. It should not start the whole fight over again [So, no: “That’s okay. I was really hurt when you said that, because I feel like you’re always saying things like that without a thought for anyone else, probably because your god-awful mother just didn’t really give you enough love in your sadsack mess of a childhood. But thank you for apologizing.”] Just a simple, “I was upset, but I understand.” Skip that part if you can bear it. If not, keep it short and semi-sweet. But thanking them, if it seems appropriate, is a really good idea. Because, as #1 reminds us, a true and graceful apology is rarer than a wild tiger. (Tigers are seriously endangered, which I did not know until embarrassingly recently.)

And, yeah, I’m with you: “I accept your apology” is vaguely papal, too, and I don’t really like it. Unlike the response to thank you, the classic, in this case, is outmoded and fugly.

What do you say to someone who has miscarried?

52550867Coming full circle, except not, the polite and humane response is, simply: “I’m sorry.” Or, “I’m so sorry.” Say it like you mean it, and you do mean it, because miscarriage really, truly sucks. You can add: “I am here for you in whatever way you need, if you want to talk or if you don’t, or if you’d like to go drink [at specific place/time] or if it would be nice if I brought you dinner [on specific evening].” Concrete suggestions can be helpful when people are mourning or otherwise sad, because it’s hard to be like, “yeah, actually, can you drop off some Lobster Newburg on Tuesday around 8:15pm?”

Communicate that you are available to listen (not necessarily talk) if they want to talk about it (but don’t make them talk about it. You can basically just ask them if they want to talk about it).

Mostly, don’t act like they’ve said something disgusting or shocking, even if you are in fact shocked. There are, naturally, a few other things not to say. Definitely don’t belittle the loss by providing any readily google-able and emotionally useless information. I.e. “you’ll get pregnant again STAT,” “it’s really common,” etc. This person likely needs to wallow and grieve. They don’t necessarily need your permission to do so, but don’t go blocking their way.

I think it can be nice to send a gift of some sort–flowers, food, or a book being the most useful (in my view). [If it's a late miscarriage or stillbirth, I think it's more serious and should be treated more as a death, i.e. definitely send food or flowers and perhaps a condolence note, in the case of a good friend.]

If you want to understand better how they might be feeling, read this or this. And if someone you know is coping with stillbirth, or, frankly, if you’re just interested in trying to grapple with the meaning of life/death/love, read this.

One of the most important things in this case is, in the words of a friend of mine: know your place in this person’s grief. So a hug from a friend can be great, but a hug from a colleague you vaguely dislike may be a bit of a bummer. This requires some thinking, sorry. It’s basically a tough and shitty situation.

But, most importantly, express sympathy, and really, definitely don’t try to pretend like it didn’t happen. It can be a relief for the person to be able to talk about it without feeling like they are a science experiment gone awry. To make them feel ill at ease in their sadness–or even more ill at ease in their body–is to lower the tone considerably where it matters most.

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