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A man's guide to avoiding premature apology

First of all, let me say I'm sorry. I'm going to drag Tiger Woods and Adam Giambrone into the paper again, an occurrence I regret. Well, maybe not really.

In the Chinese calendar, this is the Year of the Tiger, but let's be honest: So far, it's been the Year of the Apology. Not tied to the Gregorian calendar, I'm going to say it commenced with David Letterman's on-air confession last October, continuing through February with Mr. Woods and Mr. Giambrone. Last week, the Olympic Canadian women's hockey team even got in on the action, expressing regret for a night of drinking. (I know how that feels.)

I was particularly struck by how quickly Mr. Giambrone's apology came after his affair was discovered because, like a lot of men, I have suffered from premature apology. I don't like it when someone is upset - especially, and okay, selfishly, if they are upset at me. I rush in to say "I'm sorry" in the hopes that whatever transgression I committed can be swiftly struck from the permanent record.

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Not surprisingly, what I often get in response is: "Don't just say 'I'm sorry' if you don't mean it." But didn't I?

I asked Jennifer Thomas, co-author of The Five Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships, if a too-hasty apology can be problematic. To which she responded, without any sign of remorse, "It may just be that it's a lame apology."

She went on to explain that saying "I'm sorry" just scratches the surface of what she and Gary Chapman have defined as the five basic "languages" of apology: expressing regret ("I'm sorry"); accepting responsibility ("I was wrong"); making restitution (doing an unrelated loving thing like buying flowers); genuinely repenting (getting around to actually changing your behaviour); and requesting forgiveness (you know, grovelling).

Furthermore, she says that after surveying hundreds of people, she found not only that "I'm sorry" did not usually cut it, but that offended individuals were looking for different combinations of the five responses.

"What was interesting was that none of the categories got more than 28 per cent of the first-place votes," she says. "And what that says to us is that the evidence of whether an apology is sincere actually differs from person to person."

On her blog, Dr. Thomas, a psychologist, commended Tiger for hitting all five of the languages. Perhaps, then, I can still use the fallen golf hero as an inspiring role model.

One of my most common transgressions has been not listening. As I rushed out the door, my ex would often ask me to pick up something on my way home. "Yeah yeah, okay," I'd say, and then inevitably forget. When she got upset, I'd deliver the "lame apology" immediately, but then skip over all that business of doing something to change the pattern.

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"Marriage counsellors will often say that couples really just have one argument, but they have it over and over," said Dr. Thomas.

In her own marriage, she says, her husband used to be persistently late, something that frustrated her to no end. He would say he was sorry, but his unpunctuality continued.

"You could sum up the way I was feeling as: I don't want you to be sorry, I want you to be on time," she said. "So I made a request that what I would really like as part of his apology is if he would be willing to set his alarm on his cell phone to ring every work day at the time he really needs to start shutting down his computer."

Of course, this is all assuming that you actually want to change your behaviour, an attitude that I think a premature apology might negate.

Before blurting out a mea culpa, shouldn't a cheating man consider, for instance, whether his true life path really includes having four girlfriends? An honest transition to open polyamory might not win him a popularity contest (or an election), but maybe it's "the better way" for him. Or perhaps the relationship is simply over. How will he know if he apologizes too soon, and then out of strict adherence to his own unripe words, falls once again into a cycle of lies?

Tiger invoked Buddhism in his apology, saying that it teaches him "to stop following every impulse and learn restraint." As well as not following the pleasure impulse, could this principle apply to compulsive contrition as well, I wondered.

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Madeline Conacher, a Buddhist teacher and one of the founders of the Toronto Shambhala Centre, agreed that I might be onto something. She recommended a book by her teacher Sakyong Mipham called Ruling Your World.

"In it, he talks about how the most important quality you need is discernment - not to rush into things and to be humble and to really look before you leap," she told me. "So before you speak or act, really think about and decide what you want to say."

"If you screwed up," she continued, "or you lost your mindfulness and got caught up in your passion and had an affair, hopefully then you have some discernment to say, 'Why did this happen? What do I want to do? Does it mean the end of my relationship? Or does it mean I want to focus more on commitment?' '"

Ms. Conacher advised that proper reflection in a daily meditation practice can help you not hurt people with your confusion in the first place, but she allows that being human means making mistakes. "Sometimes," she says, "the arrow has already been shot."

Of course, if you decide not to change your behaviour, and then later, while seated on your meditation cushion, are suddenly enlightened to the fact that yeah, you really messed up and want to take it all back, you'd better pull out all five of those languages. And invent a few more while you're at it.

Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in the fall.

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About the Author
Life columnist

Micah Toub writes about relationships for the Life section. He is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming-of-age as the Son of Two Shrinks and a National Magazine Award winner. For more info, visit his Related content . More

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