Books: The Five Languages of Apology

I read this book after reading someone’s recommendation at WorldMagBlog a few weeks ago. The discussion dealt with a situation where one feels wronged by someone else, and whether it is appropriate to mention it to the person, or if Scriptural teaching about compassion, kindness, patience, and forgiveness mean forgiving without a word said about it.

The person who recommended The Five Languages of Apology said that “there are probably many times to say nothing, but if it becomes a pattern, it seems a missed opportunity to true growth in a relationship.” I had hoped to find this discussed in the book (when it was appropriate to bring the matter up or not), but if it was I missed it.

It does have a great deal of good advice on how to deal with situations that require an apology, both from the point of view of the offended person and the offender. If one has offended, he recommends bringing it up promptly and apologizing rather than sweeping things under the rug, as we so often tend to do. Otherwise, even if the other person doesn’t say anything, it is likely to have caused hurt feelings, and becomes a barrier to further growth in the relationship.

Primarily the authors deal with the different ways that people give apologies, and the different ways they expect to hear an apology from someone else. For many people, saying “I’m sorry” constitutes an apology, but to others that comes across as inadequate or insincere. For some people, what is needed is to explicitly acknowledge that one has done something wrong and accept responsibility for one’s actions. For others, it is to make restitution. For still others, it is to demonstrate repentance by changed behavior. And for some, it is to ask for forgiveness.

Gary Chapman, one of the co-authors, likens this difference in “languages of apology” to his previous books on the five love languages. My husband’s love languages are physical affection and giving gifts. Mine are spending quality time together and doing acts of service. One of the struggles in marriage is to speak one another’s “love language.” And as Chapman points out, it is also very important to give an apology in the other person’s language.

After going through the Apology Language Profile at the end of the book, I would say my apology languages are restitution and forgiveness. In the cases where someone has said something that hurt my feelings, I would want to hear a request for forgiveness. In situations where someone’s action has had a negative impact on me (other than to my feelings), I would want the person to make up for it in some way.

Honestly, though, I had trouble thinking of examples to relate this to. I’m sure that it’s not for lack of having been hurt or having hurt other people. But as the authors point out, as a society we have become unused to apologizing. We do tend to try to sweep things under the rug, and abandon broken relationships rather than work at healing them. I tend to simply accept hurts as part of life and move on. I don’t dwell on them, so I find it hard to think of examples.

Largely this is because I hate confrontation. It’s hard enough to mention something wrong I have done and apologize. But it’s even harder, I think, for me to point out to someone else what he or she has done wrong and hurt me. At best I might make a very oblique reference to it and hope that the other person will get the hint and say something about it.

No doubt some of that goes back to how I was brought up. I don’t remember actually being taught to apologize (one of the biggest reasons, the authors point out, for adults failing to apologize appropriately). Moreover, my father tended to avoid confrontation also (my mother often accused him of wanting “peace at any price”). And my mother, at the other extreme, continually reminded people (especially my father) of not only current offenses but ones committed long ago. I didn’t ever want to be like that.

The book has a good chapter on teaching  children to apologize. One thing in it that I find odd, however, is that at the end of the section on teaching the child to that our action affect others, it gives an example of a child being required to say, “I’m sorry.” Earlier in the book, when explaining the five different languages of apology, “I’m sorry” was explained as the language of regret, of feeling badly about what one has done. But does the child required to say, “I’m sorry” actually feel regret?

One would hope that as children learn empathy, they will feel bad when they realize how their actions have hurt others. But it seems to me that by teaching children to use the “I’m sorry” form of apology regardless of whether they actually feel regret, this goes contrary to what the authors are trying to teach about the different languages. As they point out, teaching them about the different languages comes after they have already learned to apologize, and their language skills are good enough to understand the idea of different ways to apologize.

But by then they have already learned “I’m sorry” as an all-purpose apology. One sentence says, “And when we do wrong, we need to say ‘I’m sorry.'” It would make much more sense to me to say “And when we do wrong, we need to say ‘I was wrong’ or ‘it was my fault.'” Saying that is a statement of fact, of taking responsibility, regardless of one’s feelings. Being taught to say “I’m sorry” regardless of whether one feels sorry will lead, it seems, to what led to this book being written to begin with – people saying “I’m sorry” and thinking it constitutes a proper apology, while to the offended person it seems insincere or inadequate.

Some parts of the book seem somewhat repetitive. I wondered if maybe it was written so that one could read only part of it, such as the part about apologizing in the workplace, without reading the entire book. Maybe it is just to be sure the point gets through. Maybe by multiplying all sorts of examples, the authors hope that at least some will fit the experiences of anyone reading the book. Certainly there are many examples of relationships being healed as a result of an effective apology. And there are also a few examples where someone was unwilling to apologize, and it spelled the end of the relationship.

This is what apologies are all about, the authors explain. The purpose is to restore and deepen the relationship. One section goes through barriers to apologizing, and barriers to forgiving once the offender has apologized. One other thing the book did not cover was what if either the offender or offended person has died before this can take place – though it emphasized the importance of not putting it off because we never know how soon it may be too late.

One chapter that I am not sure I would fully endorse is the one on apologizing to yourself. It makes clear that first one needs to have apologized to other parties (including God) and made things right and been forgiven. Sometimes one still has trouble forgiving oneself, and the authors recommend an apology to oneself to help this happen. As with apologies to other people to restore relationships with them, an apology to oneself is to reconcile one’s ideal self with one’s real (imperfect) self. I’m not sure what it is in this advice that makes me uneasy, whether it is just the words that are used, or the ideas behind them.

Overall, I think this book is an excellent resource both on the importance of apology and forgiveness, and understanding that different people are looking for different things in an apology before they feel it is adequate and are ready to forgive.

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