I’ve been meaning to cover this topic on the blog for a while. As some of you know, I write essays fairly frequently that deal with apologies. While research has shown that people are generally quite unforgiving (a finding I find personally depressing, as people are also imperfect and mess up, even when they’re acting in good faith), I’ve found that apologies have been an essential part of pretty much all of my relationships with other people.
Anyway, whenever I write about apologies, invariably a reader will write in mentioning Gary Chapman’s Five Languages of Apology.
I’ve been meaning to cover it for a while on this blog for readers who aren’t familiar with it. I’ve covered another of Chapman’s books, the mega hit The Five Love Languages (and alluded to the framework many times in other essays).
I thought it was about time that I paid Chapman’s apology book (coauthored with Jennifer Thomas) and framework some attention. So here we go.
A Disclaimer About Chapman’s Churchiness
Disclaimer: As I have before in my coverage of the Love Languages, I’ll just mention that Chapman is a little goofy sometimes. He tends to work within a heterosexual Christian marriage script. Exclusively. So as a person who has strayed far from God’s alleged light (hey, I’m some kind of good, just not church lady good), when I read his work, I’ll occasionally wince at certain phrases.
Nonetheless, there’s some good stuff here.
If you can’t ignore/work around that stuff, then reading the book probably won’t pan out well for you. But I have no problem picking through the bits I don’t like to find stuff that’s useful.
Okay, now that that’s over with, let’s dig in.
The 5 Languages of Apology
The core tenet of the 5 Apology Languages Framework is that people want and/or need different things out of the apologies they receive. Just like people have all different ways they feel loved and feel more loved when their primary love language is spoken to them, people feel that they receive the most sincere apology when their primary apology language is spoken to them.
Here are the 5 apology languages according to the framework:
- expressing regret
- accepting responsibility
- making restitution
- genuinely repenting
- requesting forgiveness
This element of apology revolves around the person actually speaking the words “I’m sorry” and knowing that the person who hurt us actually regrets what they have done.
This is a very common requirement for most people’s apologies, but some people put a lot more weight on this piece than others. Others find it less important or insufficient without another apology language being spoken as well.
This element of an apology revolves around the other person accepting responsibility for what they have done. Rather than saying something like, “Well, I was running late,” when you’ve snapped at someone, when you accept responsibility, you’re more likely to say something like, “I was wrong to snap at you,” or “I’m sorry I was mean; it was stupid and it was my fault.”
As you can see from the examples, accepting responsibility can (and often does) accompany expressing regret.
But for people whose primary apology language is about accepting responsibility, it can’t just stop at “I’m sorry.” And any explanations offered that would account for the hurtful behavior might actually backfire and make that person more upset than if no apology were offered at all — particularly if that person doesn’t also say what they did was wrong and/or it was their fault.
When you make restitution to someone you’ve hurt, you find a way to pay for what you’ve done. If what you’ve done results in an important object being destroyed, then you could make restitution by buying a replacement or paying for a repair.
Sometimes the wrong isn’t so concrete, however. That doesn’t mean that the other person can’t want restitution or that it can’t be made. For example, some people might want to be taken out to a nice dinner by the person who’s apologizing them or have them do a favor as part of the apology. Basically offering to do or give you something in order to mend bridges.
Or it could mean that if they said something nasty about you in front of friends that they might make an effort to publicly renounce it and tell those friends they were out of line.
(It’s worth noting here that some people actually despise certain restitution-style apologies. I’ve found this to be the case especially with people who were in abusive relationships or had abusive family members who would buy presents to apologize for abuse and hope that would smooth things over. Again, like anything, knowledge of your partner and their history is key here.)
Repentance is about making a commitment to not make the same mistake again.
This is very important to some people.
Chapman also notes that repentance can be particularly more important with larger offenses and also suggests that if you’re genuinely repenting to someone else, it can be helpful to come up with a plan to avoid it in the future demonstrate that you’re committed to not doing it again. (Incidentally, some readers may find it helpful to look at another writeup I did about a book on accountability, which dives into this topic as well.)
This apology language is exactly as it sounds. For some people, it’s very important that a person ask for their forgiveness. For people who have this primary apology language, an apology is incomplete and insincere if it does not end with being asked, “Do you forgive me?”
Asking for forgiveness puts the offending party into a vulnerable position, one in which they demonstrated that they’ve relinquished control or a need to be right.
It can be difficult for someone to say. Therefore, to the right person, it can serve as a powerful, vital part of apology.
What’s Your Apology Language?
Curious about what your top apology languages would be? Chapman has a free test that you can take here.