Never Say “If” When You Apologize

If I offended anyone…

That statement rips through the heart of every public relations professional when she hears her client stand up and use the conditional “if” while making an apology.

Nothing undercuts sincerity like the conditional “if” does.

Imagine this. You are in a boutique that sells fine china. You have a backpack draped over your shoulder. You turn slightly to see another display, only to hear the crash of china smashing to the floor in bits.

The store owner comes running over with a look of horror. You say, “If I broke this china, sorry.”

Of course, you broke the china; it’s lying in a hundred pieces on the floor. There are no ifs, ands, or buts when you do something careless or hurtful. 

Offense provokes a response

How do we know this? Because you are making an apology. We don’t apologize for saying nice things about other people. We apologize when we say something stupid that offends.

Using the conditional is supposed to let you off the hook. But, instead, what we are saying is, “I didn’t know what I was saying.” Admitting something like that in public does nothing to improve your authenticity. If true, you sound clueless. If not—which is more likely the case—you seem insincere.

That old sincerity thing again. 

Origin of apology

The real problem with using the conditional if in an apology is that you are putting your ego ahead of another person’s pain. By using if you are saying, “Hey, I am only doing this because my boss (my company, my banker, my spouse, etc.) want me to.” 

Such words are in keeping with the word’s original meaning, apologia, meaning “in defense of.” Until the 17th-century, apologias were made in defense of a cause. But something changed. According to the Merriam-Webster definition, William Shakespeare is credited with popularizing apology as in, “I’m sorry.” And to which he added something even more critical. Forgiveness.

Quality of mercy

When you make a mistake, own it. Again. And ask for forgiveness. 

The point of an apology is to say that you are sorry, not that you “may have offended.” Sorrow is a way of showing compassion to someone you have wronged. Apologizing is not a sign of weakness; it is an admission of humility. You put yourself at the mercy of another. As the Bard wrote in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

A good apology may evoke the need for forgiveness, which as Shakespeare notes, rewards the one who forgives as well as the one who is forgiven. Nothing to be sorry about in that sentiment.

First posted on 00.00.2022