A Bad Apology Is Worse Than No Apology
An apology should not be thought of as pass/fail. Pausch tells his students that any apology which receives less than an A is not really an apology. A halfhearted or insincere apology is often worse than no apology at all because it is seen as insulting. Doing something wrong to another person is like having an infection in the relationship. An effective apology serves as an antibiotic, but a bad apology is like rubbing salt into an open wound.
Most of Pausch’s classes involve considerable group work, and it is inevitable that friction between group members will occur. Some students do not do their share of the work, while others are arrogant and belittling to other group members. By the middle of the semester, apologies are always necessary. When students refuse to offer them, the groups are no longer effective. That is when Pausch gives them his speech on apologies.
He starts by describing two bad apologies. The first offers an apology for hurting the other person; it is an attempt to take care of a symptom but does not heal the wound. The second offers an apology but insists the other person also needs to apologize. This is, in essence, asking for an apology, not giving one. A proper apology has three parts: an admission of what one did wrong, an admission that one feels badly about hurting the other person, and asking how one can make things better.
It is true that some people might take advantage of the final component, demanding something outrageous or ridiculous in exchange for forgiveness. Most people, however, will appreciate the effort and intent of a sincere apology. Often they will try to help make things better themselves. Students ask what happens if they apologize but receive no apology in return. Pausch tells them that is out of their control and they must not let it bother them.
If a person offers a heartfelt apology to someone who owes them one as well, it may be a while before he or she receives any kind of response. The odds of both parties being in the same emotional state of mind to offer a sincere apology at the same time are small. He tells his students to be patient. Many times in the course of his career, Pausch has seen students apologize and it takes several days for the rest of the team to get back to its normal footing. Patience in such matters is appreciated and will be rewarded.