A member of our community recently shared with me his frustration that he had apologized to someone, “I’m sorry, please forgive me,” and he sensed that the person was still withholding forgiveness and reconciliation. In that moment, I reflected on The Five Languages of Apology as defined by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas. Their theory, which actually parallels Maimonides’ guidance in Hilchot Teshuva, is that there are 5 primary ways to apologize, and that we are each attuned to, we each resonate with, one or two of these more than others. So my response to this individual was that they were just not speaking in a language that their friend could understand. “I’m sorry, please forgive me,” may make your heart sing, but if your friend is longing to hear, “I was wrong, what can I do to make it better?”, then you are just not speaking the same language and your apology will not be heard as heartfelt and meaningful.
It is so hard to apologize. Apologizing does not come easily or naturally. It is equally hard to forgive, to let go of our desire for justice and validation of our hurt. Sue Monk Kidd, in her wonderful book, The Secret Life of Bees, writes that, “If God said in plain language, ‘I’m giving you a choice, forgive or die,’ a lot of people would go ahead and order their coffin.”
For many people, I would submit, this is the greatest spiritual challenge of their lives. Rabbi Harold Kushner wisely notes that the four holiest words in the English language are, “I may be wrong.”
It is part of the deep wisdom of our tradition to set aside this season for us to examine not only our relationship with God and the ways in which we need to do better, but also our relationships with each other, to take responsibility for the pain we have caused and to seek and offer forgiveness.
More than 800 years ago, Moses Maimonides compiled Hilchot Teshuva, The Laws of Repentance, in which he detailed the 5 major components of a successful apology. First is hakarat ha-chet- recognizing that we have done wrong. We cannot begin this process of return, to restoration of our relationship with others or with God, or with ourselves, for that matter, until we become aware of our errors. Denial is a strong temptation, so this first step is critical. This is followed by ha-ra-ta- a sense of regret. It is so easy and so tempting to rationalize our behavior. We excel at making up excuses. That still small voice of conscience within must be heeded, that nagging sense of guilt which is the moral equivalent of physical pain, alerting us to the fact that something is very wrong, must be treasured as a divine gift.
The third step is viddui- a process which is an important part of our ritual for this holy season. We acknowledge out loud the nature of our misdeeds and our regret at having performed them. This is followed by the resolve not to repeat our errors in the future. We know that our repentance is truly completed when we reach the final stage- when we have an opportunity to repeat the same action and we restrain ourselves from doing so.
In 2006, Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas published a book entitled, The Five Languages of Apology. When I read it, I was struck by how their findings paralleled the wisdom of Maimonides. I am a big fan of Dr. Chapman’s earlier work, The Five Love Languages, in which he outlined the intriguing thesis that each of us experiences a feeling of being loved in different ways, and that it behooves us to become familiar with our partner’s primary and secondary love languages.
In this book, the authors apply the same theory to the language of apology. They emphasize the fundamental significance of apologies in the restoration of relationships, for without a heartfelt apology in a language the offended person can understand, there is no mandate for forgiveness and we can all too quickly become estranged from those we care about most.
Maimonides, we recall, included 5 steps- recognition, regret, confession, acceptance of responsibility, which included resolve not to repeat the action, and, finally, actually following through when presented with another opportunity to commit the same wrong.
Chapman and Thomas identify expression of regret as the first apology language, into which they incorporate Maimonides’ emphasis on verbal acknowledgement. This is followed by acceptance of responsibility. They add a third concept- the offer of restitution- “What can I do to make it right?” Maimonides and our contemporary authors each include genuine repentance, the resolution not to repeat the same misdeed, as the fourth stage. Chapman and Thomas offer an important fifth “language of apology”- a specific request for forgiveness. Each of these deserves a closer look.
The first language of apology is expression of regret. For this language to be truly effective, the authors posit, it must include not only the words “I’m sorry”, but also the specifics of the offense. I’m sorry is generic. If our friend is to be moved from offense to forgiveness, it is most helpful for us to specify what we did wrong and how we believe it negatively impacted them. Once they understand that we know, that we really get the nature of their hurt, it is much easier for them to open their hearts, secure in the knowledge that they won’t be further wounded. After all, once we have caused our loved one to suffer, it takes a real leap of faith for them to be willing to open themselves up again.
Chapman and Thomas stress the need for our body language to match our words. Think about children when we say, “Say you’re sorry.” The forced “I’m sorry” is accompanied by a scowling face and crossed arms, and is not a particularly effective form of apology. They also remind us of the critical need to restrain ourselves from the temptation to add a “but” to our sincere expression of regret. Because it is so hard to do, they even offer some sample language as to what this might sound like, “I know now that I hurt you very deeply. That causes me immense pain. I am truly sorry for what I did.” “At the time, obviously I was not thinking very well. I never intended to hurt you, but now I can see that my words were way out of line. I’m sorry that I was so insensitive.” Vicky, a 26-year-old single woman, summarizes this apology language succinctly, “I want them to feel bad for making me feel bad.”
The rabbis teach that we should train our tongue to say, “I was wrong.” This is the essence of the second language of apology. Too often, we consider it a sign of weakness to acknowledge the error of our ways. One of the reasons that our confession on Yom Kippur is in the plural- “For the sin that WE committed. . . “is to lend each other support with this sometimes overwhelming challenge. Somehow, knowing that we all have made mistakes, gives us the courage to own up to our wrongdoing out loud. “All of us make mistakes,” write Chapman and Thomas. “The only mistake that will destroy you is the one you are unwilling to admit.”They provide some concrete language for our consideration- “I made a big mistake. At the time, I didn’t think much about what I was doing. But in retrospect, I guess that’s the problem. I wish I had thought before I acted. What I did was wrong.” It would be difficult to resist the sincere introspection reflected in these words.
Restitution is the third language of apology. For people like me, it doesn’t matter how sorry you are or that you understand how you hurt me. What I and others like me want to know is- what are you going to do about it? A psychological study suggests that, “To offer restitution is to equalize the balance of justice.” Just to complicate things further, the appropriate restitution may depend on what that person’s love language is- we can talk about that in our discussion if you like. Restitution sounds like this, “Is there anything I can do to make up for what I have done?” “I know I have hurt you deeply and I feel like I should repay you for the hurt I’ve cause. Can you give me a suggestion?”
The authors’ point is that, while each of these aspects is an element of a comprehensive apology, as individuals we are finely attuned to one or two of these apology languages, such that, if we don’t hear the words we are listening for, we don’t feel that we have been effectively “apologized to” and it will be hard for us to move forward. The most successful apology, then, will include all 5 of these elements- regret, acceptance of responsibility, an offer of restitution, genuine repentance and a specific request for forgiveness.
What if we don’t know the other person’s apology language? There I was at Fort Hood, trying to apologize to the woman whose white car I had sideswiped with my red rental car. As I apologized to the owner of the car for the inconvenience I had caused her, I found myself consciously running through the languages of apology in my head, to ensure that I touched on whatever would be most meaningful to her. When I said, “I hope that you can forgive me”, she lit up, visibly released the tension in her body, and replied, “There’s nothing to forgive- accidents happen”. Clearly I had discovered her primary apology language!
In Hebrew, the word for repentance is “teshuva”, from the root “lashuv”, to return. Chapman and Thomas note that the English word repentance is also derived from this notion of “turning around”. “The person regrets the pain he or she is causing to the other person, and (he) chooses to change (their) behavior.” The resolve to change is an internal one, but it sure moves the apology/forgiveness process along when we verbally state this intention. Recruiting our friends and loved ones as allies in our goal to change our behavior will have the additional benefit of helping them to be more patient when we fall short of achieving our stated goal. Repentance is the fourth language of apology.
Maimonides asks, “What is a complete act of teshuva? A person who has the opportunity to transgress in the way they have previously, and they are able to do so, and they abstain and don’t do it as a consequence of their teshuva, of their repentance- not from fear of lack of strength.”
Finally, the stage we too frequently omit, the fifth and final language of apology, simply asking for forgiveness. We can say we’re sorry all day long and offer restitution on great orders of magnitude, but to those whose primary language of apology is requesting forgiveness, there is no substitute for hearing those words- “Will you forgive me?” At the conclusion of the al cheyt prayer, we beg God, “V’al kulam- for all of these- eloha selichot- God of forgiveness, slakh lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu- forgive us, excuse us, erase our wrongdoing.”
In our personal relationships, Chapman and Thomas remind us that “when you request to be forgiven, you are making a huge request. It will be costly to the person you have offended. When they forgive you, they must give up their desire for justice. They must relinquish their hurt and anger, their feeling of embarrassment or humiliation. They must give up their feelings of rejection and betrayal. Sometimes they must live with the consequences of your wrong behavior.” It’s no wonder, as Sue Monk Kidd wrote, that most people would rather just “order their coffin”. Yet, the older we get the more we appreciate the ultimate value of loving and supportive friends and family.
How much richer our lives will be if we can learn to speak the words that others are longing to hear. May we all be blessed today and every day, with the emotional maturity and strength to acknowledge and accept responsibility for our wrongdoing, to be willing to do what it takes to right that wrong, to resolve to do better in the future, and, in the end, to ask for forgiveness.
Now let’s talk about YOUR apology language and how knowing this might be helpful as you seek forgiveness and perhaps reconciliation on this holiest of days.
- In theory, what are your primary and secondary “languages of apology”?
- Does this finding accurately reflect your intuition and experience about yourself?
- Can you think of an incident in your life that affirms this truth?
- Can you think of a time in your life when this information might have changed the outcome of a situation?
- How might this concept be helpful in your relationships with friends and family?
 Chapman, Gary and Thomas, Jennifer, The Five Languages of Apology, Chicago: Northfield Publishing, 2006, p. 35
 ibid., p. 33
 Ibid., p. 47
 ibid., p. 50
 Everett Worthington Jr., quoted in ibid., p. 54
 Ibid., p. 67
 Chapman and Thomas, op. cit., p. 69
 Maimonides, op. cit., 2:1
 Chapman and Thomas, op.cit., p. 100