It is face-to-the-gravel rough when you deliver an emphatic apology that, somehow, falls flat. Like you pulled out all the stops, you were eloquent in your repentance or showered the person with gifts, and yet…nothing. But take a beat, because you may not have apologized poorly. Rather, it could be that the recipient speaks a different “apology language.” In fact, we all recognize and receive “I’m sorry” differently, according to Gary Chapman and Jennifer M. Thomas, the authors of The Five Languages of Apology.
Much like Chapman’s five love languages, the apology styles detailed in the book fall into five groups. At a glance, they are “expressing regret,” “accepting responsibility,” “genuinely repent,” “making restitution,” and “request forgiveness.” Knowing there are different apology “languages” can help you apologize to others more effectively and figure out how you like to receive apologies—and that can help you move on from future conflicts more quickly.
“When it comes to receiving an apology, it’s good to reflect and think about what’s meaningful to you,” says Debra Roberts, LCSW, relationship expert and author of The Relationship Protocol. “Then you can communicate those feeling to the other person and hopefully shortcut the conflict resolution process and recover quicker.” She adds that it’s also beneficial to know the person on the other side of the interaction, and understand how they communicate and what their definition of an apology is.
So, that means you might want to take this handy-dandy little quiz on the five apology languages, and maybe slide it over to your friends and/or partner as well. Then, read on to learn how to identify and use each language in practice.
The five apology languages that’ll help your “sorry” land gracefully
1. Expressing regret
If someone has this as their apology language, breathe easy. You’re not going to jump through any flaming hoops here. “A simple but genuine ‘I’m sorry’ is the only apology that’s needed for this apology language,” Roberts says. “As long as they believe the other person understood what took place and they are remorseful, that’s good enough.”
Simple, right? But there’s an important caveat here: the expression of regret really needs to be spelled out. It doesn’t matter so much if it’s said verbally, composed in a very earnest text, or written in M&Ms on pizza like in Princess Diaries (a perfect film). Those words, and a short explanation of how harm was caused, will get you very far, but they need to be heard without an empty gesture.
So, imagine a situation where a colleague disappointed their boss, but (luckily) said boss has this chill apology language. “Perhaps their coworker apologized because he wasn’t prepared for the presentation to a customer,” says Roberts. “It’s the first time he didn’t give a stellar presentation, so his apology is accepted because he felt bad, and there was no ill-intent on his part.”
This apology will sound something like: “Hey, I’m really sorry I didn’t show up to that presentation as my best self. I have a lot going on at home right now and just wasn’t in the best headspace. It won’t happen again.”
2. Accepting responsibility
Accountability without explanation is the name of the game with this particular love language. When apologizing to someone who “speaks” this language, really focus on what you did, how you hurt the other person, and cut out any bulk. “This apology language is not interested in excuses or reasons; they want a straight apology,” says Roberts. “If your ‘I’m sorry’ comes with ‘a story,’ it will not be felt or received as sincere, even if it’s legitimate.”
She also advises you nix a certain word when you’re apologizing: but. Doing the old, “I’m sorry, but…” is already a rookie mistake when it comes to conflict, because it immediately puts one party on the defensive and places the blame on someone or someone else. It can actually negate the “sorry” and piss off the receiver. That is especially true for someone with this apology language.
“The only acceptable solution is to say you are sorry and own your part, without explanation or excuses,” Roberts says. “Tell them you apologize because you forgot their birthday and you feel awful about it. Don’t share the 50 reasons that distracted you on their special day, because none of those ‘excuses’ will matter.”
This will sound something like: “Oh my god, I’m so sorry I forgot your birthday last week, that was beyond thoughtless on my part and it kills me that you felt so neglected. There’s no excuse for it. I treasure our friendship, and January 23 is now forever marked into my Google Cal.”
3. Genuinely repent
“Genuinely repent” sounds pretty intense, like throwing yourself at the mercy of a vengeful ruler. Really, this language is just about having an action point to pair with your apology. So remember how you never want to do an “I’m sorry, but…”? For this apology language, you want to execute an “I’m sorry, and…” You need to inform the other person of your plan to atone for your behavior and the improvements you want to make in the future.
“For example, if you got angry and started raising your voice or yelling at them during an argument, in addition to apologizing, you’d want them to know that you are going to think more about your angry reaction,” Roberts says. “You will make an effort to understand why you reacted so strongly because you are upset with yourself too. Knowing you are taking action will ease their mind.”
This will sound something like: “Hey, can we talk? I’m so sorry I raised my voice at you earlier, and I promise to regulate my emotions better going forward. I’ll be more proactive in addressing when I’m stressed out in the future, because I don’t want to project my anger about work on you.”
4. Making restitution
So, this language is similar to the one above, but a little trickier and more tit-for-tat. While genuinely repenting is about promising to make behavior changes, making restitution involves more concrete gestures. It could involve rebuilding trust or your feelings for someone, for sure, but that road is likely paved with reciprocal action.
“In these circumstances, you’ll want to know what’s important to the other person and then behave or communicate in caring and reassuring ways,” says Roberts. “If they appreciate kind gestures, consider getting their favorite pastries from the local bakery or giving them a thoughtful card.”
Basically, someone whose love language is “receiving gifts” will probably lean towards “making restitution” as their apology language. And don’t fret if there’s isn’t an exact equal way to make things up to someone. “On a deeper level, you can talk more openly about how you feel and how important they are to you,” says Roberts. “As long as your actions match your words and you are genuine, your apology will be accepted eventually, if not immediately.”
This will sound something like: “I’m really sorry I forgot to get groceries for the apartment earlier, it completely slipped my mind. Let’s order from your favorite Thai place tonight, my treat, and then tomorrow I’ll hit up Trader Joe’s after work.”
5. Request forgiveness
So, uh, what’s the point of requesting forgiveness in the first place? Think about it in terms of consent. With this apology language, the receiver wants you to ask for forgiveness and then have the agency to accept your apology. FWIW, if you’ve conducted some kind of masterful f–k up (looking at you, Every Guy I’ve Ever Dated), you might want to cap off your apology with this ask, because sometimes people are so deeply wronged that they should be given the option to forgive you.
“You can’t be impatient or force their hand by demanding they accept your apology,” says Roberts. “This apology is about giving them time to sort through the situation and decide how they want to go forward. Letting the other person know that you respect their feelings of needing time but that you sincerely apologize for hurting them, is a good way to go.”
This will sound something like: “Hey, don’t feel like you have to respond to this, but I just want to apologize for how I ended things between us. You didn’t deserve getting ghosted like that, and it would mean a lot to have your forgiveness and start fresh. But I totally understand if you just want to keep moving forward on your own.”
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