Learn to apologize

More and more people have been asking me what they can do to make things better for women and minorities in the tech industry.  It always makes my day when somebody at work asks me how they can be better.  It renews my faith in my coworkers because they recognize that something is wrong at least and they want to do something about it.  It frustrates me to no end when someone hears a negative story and then acts as if there is nothing one person can to do make it better.  As a result of that, I’ve been trying to find meaningful, actionable advice that I can give people.

The thing that I keep coming back to is how people act after someone tells them that their behavior is not what they consider acceptable.  Taking a step back, when you’re new or a minority or don’t know people that well or shy or whatever, it’s hard to even say, “hey, this isn’t okay.”  I had to learn how to express this feeling in an understandable way.  A friend of mine always tells people simply, “that’s rude” whereas I might give someone a hurt look or an narrow-eyed glare.  I’ve been working on compiling responses that I feel safe saying to someone else.  Usually, they’re along the lines of “Seriously?” or “Did you really just say that?” or “That’s not funny.” Sometimes, it takes the form of me literally walking away.  Even still, there are times that I am uncomfortable but not clearly messaging it in an understandable way to others.

The first thing I recommend to others is to be acutely aware of how your words are taken by others.  I know it’s hard to gauge reactions of others when you don’t know them that well.  I know it’s hard to find the one person that’s not laughing in a group.  Even still, you should try to be aware of the cues that others give off when they are not comfortable.  I’ll often not smile, not laugh, glare, nervously bite my lip, or do other nonverbal cues when I’m uncomfortable.  When I feel like I can say something verbally that won’t continue the uncomfortableness, I’ll try to express the feeling outloud.  Misunderstandings happen more often when people communicate their thoughts without regard to the reactions of those who are listening to them.

When you recognize that someone else is uncomfortable, try to make them comfortable again.  When I used to wear hijab, I was often the target of a lot of verbal abuse.  This would happen in front of people that I considered friends, and yet, no one would say anything to the abuser.  When I’m at work, sometimes someone will say something that crosses the line and other people will recognize that but again, stay silent.  In my mind, silence is compliance.  Silence means to me that you do not disagree with what that person is saying. Often, people will come up to me after the fact and try to sympathize by saying that it was such an awful thing that happened and they’re sorry it happened to me.  This does not make me feel better—this only makes you feel better and absolves yourself from the guilt that you feel for not standing up for me.  Instead of just smiling and acting as if your apology for not standing up for me makes me feel better, I’ve been asking people why they stayed silent.  “Well, I was uncomfortable” or “Well, they seemed unhinged for saying that in the first place so I feared that saying anything to them would incite violence” or “I didn’t want them to turn on me” are the three main responses.  Angry Neem here but are you kidding me that you felt uncomfortable?  How do you think I feel?  Do you think it would have been comfortable for me, the target of the attack, to defend myself against someone that you thought was unhinged?!  Come on people!  Treat people how to want to be treated.  Recognize that I can’t always defend myself.  Recognize that you might have privilege in the situation that makes it easier for you to defend others.  I’m not even asking for you to condemn what the other person is saying (but I really should be), I’m just asking you to neutralize the situation.  Say something like, “that’s not cool” and get me out of there.  Get someone with authority to do something (if you’re at a restaurant, get a manager instead of waiting for the manager to do something themselves).  Act as an advocate for the victim and add your voice to theirs when they want the situation remedied.  All of these are ways that you can help someone feel comfortable again without having to interact with the person that made them uncomfortable.  I’ve been personally trying to speak up, and I challenge you to do the same.

If you made someone feel uncomfortable, apologize. Do not downplay the situation and especially do not mock the person who feels uncomfortable.  If someone says they feel uncomfortable or sad or upset, you can’t tell them that they don’t feel that way.  If you were joking around and someone got offended, don’t downplay their feelings by saying “it was just a joke” or “lighten up” or “you need a sense of humor.”  You affected somebody’s feelings.  Take responsibility for it.  Do not say, “I’m sorry you feel this way” (everyone knows that’s a non-apology).  If I accidentally make fun of your age, I should say, “I am sorry that I said that. I thought I was joking and I meant to be lighthearted, but I recognize that it wasn’t taken that way” (again, totally sorry for all the times that I’ve done this). Actively say that you are sorry and try to mean it.  You didn’t really want to upset someone, did you?!  Every time someone says sorry to me, I feel like they’re depositing good will into our shared emotional bank account.  When people mock me for feeling upset, I think that our relationship is emotionally in debt.  I won’t feel comfortable opening up with you later on and we won’t work together as well as we should.  I have always appreciated apologies from other people even if it’s months after the situation, and it makes me feel a renewed sense of hope that people can recover from being assholes.  Admittedly, learning to apologize is super hard.  I still get defensive after I’ve hurt someone, and it’s so much easier to assume that I’m in the right and they’re in the wrong.  Apologizing feels like admitting that I’m wrong, but not apologizing is verifying that you’re not a great person to the person that you’ve hurt.  I still catch myself much after the fact and realize that I either didn’t give an apology or gave an insincere one.  Dozens of people have gotten those awkward text messages from me or worse, those awkward walks around the office where I say hey, I screwed up and I’m sorry.  Dozens more probably deserve the same from me (and if you’re one of them, please let me know!!).  Apologizing is super hard, but it’s an incredibly useful skill to have for building relationships.

So, how can you make things better for others?  You can start with these three actionable items:
1. Recognize the impact of your words.
2. Speak up and diffuse the situation if someone else is uncomfortable.
3. Sincerely apologize when you hurt others.

I’m trying my best to follow these, and I hope you do, too.

2 thoughts on “Learn to apologize”

  1. What I love most about this article is that you’ve given people actionable things they can do to improve.

    I think one thing that’s helped me over the past few years is to realize that I’m sometimes wrong, and to become comfortable with that fact. Like you said, you can’t apologize if you can’t admit that you were wrong. And if you can’t apologize, then you’ll leave people hurting. (Empathy is hard, but going through life as a jerk is not the better alternative.) The other advantage of being comfortable with being wrong is that it helps you see where you can improve, removing impediments to becoming a better person.

    1. Agreed. It’s very hard. I think the thing that I wanted to convey the most is that it’s hard enough for people to actually stand up for themselves and say something in the first place, so you have to be accepting of that on the other end and try to remedy the situation.

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