The benefits of a good apology and how to make one

A good apology can do great things. A bad one can cause trouble. Know the difference.

stick note with the word sorry and a smiley face
Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels
  • No one likes to admit they were wrong, but we still have social norms that suggest we all do it from time to time.
  • A well done apology can show respect, build trust, save relationships, and maintain your self-esteem.
  • Saying "I'm sorry you feel that way" does not count.

Let's be real, apologizing can be difficult. Nobody likes to admit that they were in the wrong, mistaken, or that they offended somebody. However, we still have agreed-upon ways to acknowledge that we did something wrong and to express our remorse to others. Furthermore, when you think about it, apologizing is one of the psychologically healthiest and most positive actions you can take when unpleasantness arises.

Saying you’re sorry, it’s not just for Canadians anymore! 

According to psychotherapist and author Dr. Beverly Engel, an apology does more than just express politeness; it is "an important social ritual, a way of showing respect and empathy for the wronged person or persons."

When you've harmed someone, a genuine, well-given apology demonstrates that you care about them, validates their emotions, allows you to take responsibility for your actions, rebuilds trust, and prevents the further deterioration of relationships. It can also help you avoid the shame and guilt of wronging someone from eating away at your self-esteem.

As Dr. Engel explains, "Apologizing to another person is one of the healthiest, most positive actions we can ever take—for ourselves, the other person, and the relationship.

Plenty of experts agree with her. Wellness coach Elizabeth Scott argues that apologies let other people know that you understand what you did was wrong and helps everyone move forward after a conflict. Dr. Denise Cummins highlights the affirmation of humanity present in apologies and points to data showing that the negative consequences of apologizing are often overstated.

Professor Allison Stanger of Middlebury College agrees and reminds us in her Big Think interview that a good apology creates suitable environments for learning and that needing to apologize for something doesn't make you a bad person:

"Human beings have blind spots. They have implicit biases. This doesn't mean you're a bad person. We all have them. And I think it's an illusion to think we can eradicate them from human beings. And this relates to civil discourse because it's important that people be allowed to think out loud and make mistakes because, particularly in diverse work environments, diverse college classrooms, people are going to come from different backgrounds, and they will say things that may offend someone. And there, I think it's extraordinarily important that we tell our students, that this may happen, but it's immensely important that if you offend someone inadvertently that you apologize and say 'That was not my intention.' And then hopefully we can move on.

In my classroom, I do this, I say, I want you to speak freely. I don't want you to censor yourself. But if anybody feels offended, they should speak up because that's not a good classroom environment, and we apologize, and we move on. And I think this is a really simple truth that apologizing and moving on is a real foundation for moving forward."

How should I apologize? Is saying “I’m sorry you feel that way,” enough?

A proper apology should express your understanding that you've done something wrong. Telling someone "I'm sorry you feel that way" if they do indeed have a legitimate grievance is not merely an inadequate apology, but it is also patronizing. Furthermore, it is an ineffective way to apologize. You should also beware of over apologizing; it can have negative effects too. Try only to make an apology when the situation calls for one.


As Rutgers professor Karen A. Cerulo explained in an interview with Freakonomics, an effective apology has several elements:

"Number one: don't wait. Forget your ego, forget the advice of your handlers. Unless you're involved in a legal situation, where you're advised not to speak, you should make an apology right away. Second, don't apologize for what people thought. In other words, we've often heard people say, 'I'm sorry that people misunderstood me; I'm sorry that people misinterpreted or misread my actions.' Apologize for what you did — not for what other people might have thought about it."

The third and fourth elements, according to Cerulo, are to not provide context as a way of explaining away your behavior, and to identify victims up front so that you can express remorse and make restitution when possible.

Dr. Ben Ho, an associate professor of economics at Vasser College, adds that people often want to see an apology that costs something. This cost doesn't have to be financial, though it can be, but can come in the form of admitting your incompetence in making the previous error or promising to do better in the future.

The results of a weak apology on the people you're apologizing to are easy to imagine. Try to recall how you felt the last time you saw somebody apologizing for getting caught rather than for what they did. It neither satisfies the offended party nor paves the way for personal growth on the part of the person who did something wrong. On an individual level, we all know the feeling of getting an insincere apology from somebody who promptly went back to the behaviors that they just "apologized" for; it reduces your respect for them and makes you feel rotten.

On the other hand, a sufficient apology can achieve great things. It can heal the harmed, change how we view somebody who did us wrong, create opportunities for forgiveness and growth, save relationships, and help us do better in the future.

While the most effective apologies often incur a cost to our status or require us to be better in the future, these can often be minor compared to the benefits of a proper apology.

So, go ahead, apologize a little more often for the things worth apologizing for- but be sure you mean it.

Live on Monday: Does the US need one billion people?

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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