You’re probably familiar with the idea of love languages. Coined by marriage counselor and author Gary Chapman, Ph.D., in his book The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, the general gist is that everybody communicates love in one of five ways. The key to any romantic partnership, he posits, is being able to speak your partner’s love language. It turns out Chapman didn’t stop at love languages. In another book, The Five Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships, he and counselor Jennifer M. Thomas, Ph.D., define the five apology languages, or the ways you hear and express the words and gestures of apology. Basically, it’s how you give and receive apologies. Read on for how to know which apology language best suits you, and why it even matters in the first place.
Why Is It Important to Know Your Apology Language?
No matter how aware you are of other peoples’ emotions, there will come a time when you do something you need to apologize for. (Seriously…you’re only human.) When that time comes, knowing your apology language means you’ll be better equipped to understand how your words and actions impact the people around you, and how to make it right when issues arise.
What Are the 5 Apology Languages?
1. Expressing Regret
Dr. Thomas says: “Say, ‘I am sorry.’ List the hurtful effects of your action. Show remorse. It doesn’t count if someone is only sorry that they got caught!”
Think of this first language as Apologies 101. A genuine ‘I’m sorry’ is essential to an effective apology—emphasis on genuine. Even though this simple two-word phrase seems like a no-brainer, you’d be surprised how many people struggle to swallow their pride and express remorse.
2. Accepting Responsibility
Dr. Thomas says: “Say, ‘I was wrong.’ Name your mistake and accept fault. Note that it is easier to say, ‘You are right’ than ‘I am wrong,’ but the latter carries more weight.”
If saying sorry is the first step, admitting wrongdoing is the second. It’s one thing to express remorse, but saying ‘I was wrong,’ shows that you’re accepting responsibility for your actions and how they made another person feel.
3. Make Restitution
Dr. Thomas says: “Ask, ‘How can I make it right?’ How are they now? Is any debt owed or repayment due? Say, “I want to make amends to you.”
Making restitution means committing to finding a way to correcting what you did wrong. Letting someone know that you want to make it up to them shows that you care enough to try to change or make amends. Note that restitution is most common in situations where a physical item has been lost or damaged (i.e., “I’m so sorry I broke the necklace you loaned to me, I ordered you a replacement.”)
4. Genuinely Repent
Dr. Thomas says: “Say, ‘I’m going to change, and here is how I will do it…’ Repentance literally means turning around 180 degrees. Engage in problem-solving. Don’t make excuses. Make a better, specific plan for change.”
If restitution typically involves physical things, repenting is a bit more abstract. This is about problem-solving—opening up a dialogue so you can create a path forward and concrete plans to make sure you’re changing for the better.
5. Request Forgiveness
Dr. Thomas says: “Ask, ‘Can you find it in your heart to forgive me?’ Be patient in seeking forgiveness and reconciliation. The other person may need the gift of time.”
It can be super easy to say you’re sorry and move on, assuming that the other party immediately accepts your apology. Those whose apology language is requesting forgiveness are sensitive to the idea that sometimes, “I’m sorry” isn’t enough, and that genuine forgiveness takes time.
4 Ways You Might Be Apologizing Wrong
Regardless of your apology language, there are a few apology no-nos to be aware of.
1. You say, “I’m sorry, but…”
Tagging “but” onto an apology is an excuse that undermines the sincerity of the words that came before it. The most successful apologies are short, genuine and typically include just three parts: an acknowledgment of how your action affected the person, an “I’m sorry” and a plan of attack for what you’re going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
2. You say, “I’m sorry you felt…”
Yikes. This one’s a doozy—and a common one at that. This not only invalidates the feelings of the person you’re apologizing to, but it puts the blame on them. As in “I’m sorry you felt hurt by what I did, but I’m not sorry that I did it.” When it comes to apologizing, being sincere and humble are the ways to go. This isn’t really a time for pride or trying to be right—assuming your end goal is forgiveness and not further resentment.
3. You’re over-explaining
Providing context for why you treated someone a certain way is one thing; explaining your actions to the point that it becomes an excuse is another. For example, let’s say your friend recently went through a horrible breakup and you felt you weren’t there for her enough. Don’t say, “I’m sorry I’ve been M.I.A. I had a work presentation and I had to plan a birthday dinner and I had another date with that guy I told you about from Tinder and…” Instead, if you feel the need to give her a little insight into what’s going on, say, “I’m sorry I’ve been M.I.A. I’ve been feeling overwhelmed recently.”
4. Your timing is off
The ideal apology doesn’t come too early or too late. In terms of earliness, sometimes people need a minute to cool down. By going in too early, you run the risk of catching them at a point when they’re not ready to forgive you yet. On the flip side, waiting too long can signify that you don’t really care about righting your wrongs. Find a middle ground and you’ll set yourself up for apology success. (But remember that, in most cases, it’s better late than never.)