Apologizing For Others

Not so long ago I was in the awkward position of having someone try to explain to me why their partner said some horrible, shitty things about something that definitely did not need horrible shitty things said about it. They quietly and quickly tried to explain why the horrible shitty things had been said after the partner had left the room.


Look, I get it. It can be tempting to apologize for friends and loved ones – we want everyone to see the good things about them that we see. But apologizing for someone else isn’t being diplomatic or defusing a situation, it’s excusing and supporting shitty behavior, maybe because you don’t want to choose a side or rock the boat.

If we feel that someone who we love or respect needs to apologize for something, we should be in line to demand that apology. It’s not our place, obligation or right to apologize for someone else. It shouldn’t matter if:

  • They’ve had a hard day
  • They get like this when they’re tired
  • They’re just crabby
  • They didn’t mean…
  • They’re just lashing out because…
  • They’re just really passionate/sensitive about xyz.
  • It’s the way they were raised. (<– let’s just strike this phrase from our lexicon, plz?)

By apologizing for someone, you are announcing that you think that they are doing it wrong – that the way they acted or the thing they said was done poorly, and that you know how to deliver their message better than they do. You might be assuming that they don’t know how they’re coming across, or that their audience isn’t understanding what your loved one intended to say. When you do that – when you try to explain – you are treating your friend/loved one AND your audience poorly; you are assuming an incompetence on one side or the other that likely doesn’t exist.

Unless someone is reaching out for help about how to better express themselves, it’s probably best to assume that what they’re saying is what they mean. There’s nothing wrong with asking for clarification (which may lead to some enlightening conversation!) but there is something very wrong with assuming that you can clarify for them.

Might be a time when you actually have some insight to why someone is behaving the way they are, and you might feel that their craptastic behavior is understandable. But if that’s the case, it’s probably their story to tell, not yours.

I should note that I have seen some good defenses of poorly-worded messages online, usually prefaced with something along the lines of, “What I think Cybil might be attempting to get across is…” or “If I understand correctly, Cybil is saying.” It can be done, but it’s important to note that you are projecting your understanding of the message, and in a way that includes Cybil in the discussion so she has a chance to respond if you get it wrong. But the more interesting conversations that I’ve taken part in usually ask for clarification, rather than attempt to offer it up. E.g., “Cybil, are you saying that…?” And defending someone is radically different than apologizing for someone. When you defend them, you are taking a solid position and agreeing with at least some aspect of their argument. An apology is an admittance of wrong-doing.

One last note: If you don’t know why someone is upset, or bent out of shape, or speaking harshly, it is likely you who don’t have all the facts. Or you might have some privilege that is keeping you from understanding. Or you might be trying to change someone into something that they’re not, something that you wish they would or could be.

When you apologize for someone else, it’s probably more about you than them.

Apologizing For Others
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6 thoughts on “Apologizing For Others

  1. 1

    On one hand, I agree with you, especially if it’s a pattern of behavior.

    On the other hand, sometimes people DO get cranky and say some stupid shit. Humans aren’t always rational, not by a long shot. In those cases I don’t really see a problem with a friend / SO apologizing for the person, to smooth over the social interaction.

    Though in cases like that, it would also be good for the apologizer to talk to the offender when s/he has calmed down, and then the offender can apologize in person at a later time.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that I feel an apology along the lines of, “I’m really sorry that was said / something offensive to you was said. This is not X’s normal behavior.” is probably pretty chill, especially if followed up by X apologizing later.

    If it’s something that happens all the time then they’ve really strayed into defending it, and the “they were raised that way” excuse is of course total bullshit.

  2. 2

    Your examples are more what I would call making excuses for someone rather than apologizing for them. To my way of thinking, apologizing for someone would go more like “That was a really awful thing for them to say, I’m so sorry,” possibly with an offer to do something to fix it, like talk to the person who did wrong about what they did. In other words, it would look like a real apology, not a not-pology. Making excuses for bad behavior is no good whether one does it for one’s own bad behavior or someone else’s.

  3. 3

    I’m trying to think of examples I have experienced, but I can’t think of any. Usually it is an apology from the person actually making the apology – in the sense that they are sorry that it happened, that they were with that person, that they don’t support one bit what was said or happened. But I know it is a real thing, to apologize for another, and that seems to be an exercise in self-delusion and excuse-making than a statement with apologetic intent. (That’s sort of the other meaning of apology, though – an explanatory dialogue as opposed to expressing sorrow or regret.)

    Meh, your post is better than what I’ve got. It was a good one.

  4. 4

    Or it’s denying the agency of the person being apologized for: “please forgive my relative/companion, zie has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember that zie shouldn’t say that.”

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