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Sincerity of Apologies

Something I wonder about occasionally: Can we take it that an apology is sincere if the mistake/offense/situation that calls for an apology is culpably repeated over and over?

This thought has mainly arisen from cell phone use. (Now I’m going to focus on cell phones the rest of the time, but I think this problem of repeated offenses and repeated apologies applies in many other situations). I’ve found that in classes and at seminars that there are individuals who just will not (for whatever reason) put their phones on silent or vibrate. I am not at all bothered by the stray forgetful person who’s phone beeps or rings once, or maybe even twice, in a semester. People forget and I don’t think that’s too big of a deal. Maybe they would do better to pay attention to such things a bit more, but I don’t think a stray incident here or there is something worth writing about.

However, it seems to me to be a different story when the same individuals do it over and over again over the course of time. Now we need to separate out two kinds of individuals: The one who just always forgets to put their phone on silent or vibrate–the one who is culpably forgetful, and the one who just doesn’t, seemingly as a policy, put their phone on silent or vibrate–the one who we’ll say is culpably willful.

My question is about the culpably willful. Now let’s assume that this person really is culpably willful. That is, they leave their cell phone on in class, lecture, seminar, etc. for no good reason. In other words they are not the people who have, before the class, notified the professor that they take care of their elderly grandmother and that they have to keep their phone on in case of an emergency or something like that. Rather the culpably willful has no pressing need to keep their phone on, and yet he or she does anyway (notice also that the person who claims, “I don’t know how to put my phone on silent/vibrate does not have a good excuse either and I would classify them as culpably willful as well). For something close to a definition, the culpably willful are those individuals who don’t take the steps they could take in order to avoid their offense (this sort of definition arguably dissolves the distinction between the culpably forgetful and the culpably willful, but never mind that now).

Now let’s add the apology in. Every time the culpably willful’s phone goes off in class or whatever, they say, “Sorry.” followed by several possible actions–leaving the room to answer it, leaving the room to silence it, silencing it on the spot, etc. But they do not follow it up by silencing their phone, as they should.

So what are we to say about apologies of this type? I myself am not really sure. One possibility is that their apologies truly are sincere each time, much like the Catholic sinner who confesses each month to the same sins he or she has committed over and over. Another possibility is that–as many of us may think about the the Catholic sinner–they are not really attempting to learn from their mistakes, and so it is hard to charitably interpret the apologies as anything other than empty phrases (or if not entirely empty, then at least not genuine apologies. What I mean here is that perhaps the culpably willful truly is sorry when his or her phone rings, but isn’t sorry enough to take preventative measures).

I am more inclined to the latter view, and I am also inclined to think something like, “an apology is not really a true apology if the person in question does not attempt to right the wrong that has occurred.” This may include, not doing it again, trying not to do it again, making it up to the person who has been wronged, etc.

It seems to me that the culpably willful person doesn’t attempt to do any of these things however. So my inclination is to wonder how their apology could truly be called a sincere one. Of course the next thing to discuss would be whether or not a sincere apology really does require one to do the sorts of things I mention above.


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