Last week, I posed the following question on Twitter:
Why is “I don’t really understand what I did to upset you, but I’m sincerely sorry for whatever it was” so ineffective?
If you respond, “Because figuring out how you upset someone is easy,” you are crazy!!!
— Bryan Caplan (@bryan_caplan) January 1, 2021
Few of the responses impressed me, but perhaps that’s because I failed to flesh out the hypothetical. I’m picturing a scenario where:
a. The speaker speaks in a sincere tone of voice.
b. The listener has failed to directly say, “I am upset with you because X.”
c. The speaker has asked “What did I do to upset you?” and the listener has refused to provide any direct answer.
In my experience, this situation is common. The main reason people say, “I don’t really understand what I did to upset you, but I’m sincerely sorry for whatever it was” is to restore amicable relations despite the speaker’s befuddlement. And while I’m well-aware that this is an ineffective strategy, I’d really like to know why.
What was so unsatisfactory about my respondents’ exegesis? Most of them seemed to assume, despite my warning, that figuring out how you upset someone is easy. And that’s patently untrue.
Several respondents suggested that only Aspies and autistics struggle to figure out the source of others’ malcontent. Absurd! Neurotypicals badly misunderstand each other all the time. Look at any playground – or Thanksgiving dinner.
What’s really going on? Here are a few stories worth considering:
1. Individuals falsely imagine that their emotions are easy for others to grasp. It’s a trick of introspection: Since the reason why you’re upset is usually obvious to you, you naively infer that such reasons are obvious to all. If others claim otherwise, they must be playing dumb.
2. Individuals are too impulsive to ponder whether their emotions are easy to grasp. But when they’re angry, humiliating and tormenting whoever upset them feels good. And the sarcastic “Mad, what makes you think I’m mad?” is well-engineered for humiliation and torment.
3. Individuals know that their emotions are not easy for others to grasp, but they strategically pretend otherwise to punish and assert dominance.
You could claim that pressuring others to figure out why you’re mad is educational. “Why am I mad? You tell me” sounds like a Socratic seminar. However, it’s hard to believe that many people simultaneously feel angry and didactic.
The best response came from University of Chicago philosopher Agnes Callard:
Because what the person who is upset at you wants, first and foremost, is not your apology or atonement but your understanding–of what you did, and of what they suffered as a result. Your speech suggests ignorance on both fronts.
— Agnes Callard (@AgnesCallard) January 1, 2021
But if the listener genuinely wanted your understanding, why wouldn’t they simply tell you why they’re upset? Or at least tell you when asked?
To repeat, I fully understand why people would respond poorly to a sarcastic or resentful, “Sorry for whatever I did.” As long as the tone is well-meaning, however, you should accept this apology with joy. Would I? Absolutely:
By the way, I would love to get an apology half as good as “I don’t really understand what I did to upset you, but I’m sincerely sorry for whatever it was” from anyone who has treated me poorly!
I instantly forgive the next person who says this to me.
— Bryan Caplan (@bryan_caplan) January 2, 2021
Per Dale Carnegie, I apologize to others often. I average about ten apologies per day. It costs me nothing, makes the people around me feel better, and helps me be a better person. If I’ve upset you yet failed to apologize, the reason is probably that I haven’t noticed that anything is wrong, or can’t figure out what it is. I’m not a mind-reader. Yet if you directly tell me what’s amiss, I will strive to make things right.