Alben Barkley, Vice President to Harry Truman, said about political apologies, “If you have to eat crow, eat it while it’s hot.” Most of us would agree that when it comes to making an apology, it’s better to act quickly, say your mea-culpa, do what you can to repair the damage, and then put the issue behind you.
However, when it comes to rebuilding trust and confidence with those you’ve offended, the timing of your apology could make all the difference between restoration and healing or just adding insult to injury.
In his newest book, Wait – The Art and Science of Delay, author Frank Partnoy gives several examples from academic research and popular culture that illustrate the importance of discerning the right time to make an apology. It’s not a question of if you need to apologize, but when.
For example, if you bump into a person while standing in line, or spill a drink on someone at a cocktail party, it’s expected and appropriate to apologize immediately. The offense is accidental and impersonal, and to not apologize immediately would be rude and disrespectful. Yet when it comes to more personal and complex situations, an immediate apology may come across as lacking sincerity, thoughtfulness, or care.
Partnoy points out that there are two good reasons to delay your apology. The first is that a snap apology may prevent the offended party from fully expressing how he or she feels about the situation, particularly if it’s a serious, personal transgression. The person wronged needs time to process what happened, understand what the intentions may have been of the offender, and what the ramifications are for their relationship.
The second reason to consider delaying your apology is that letting some time elapse allows additional information or feelings to bubble to the surface. Time and space allows the offended party to fully process their thoughts and emotions, and allows for ongoing discussion that can provide helpful context for why things happened the way they did. Having a more complete understanding of the background behind a transgression can allow the offended to progress to an emotionally open place where they can fully receive the apology.
Research by Frantz and Bennigson concludes that victims feel more satisfied when apologies are delayed because it gives them a chance to express themselves and feel that their concerns have been heard. Their studies suggest that the relationship between timing and the effectiveness of apologies follows a natural distribution curve: effectiveness is low to begin with, rises as time elapses, and then reaches a point where too much elapsed time reduces the effectiveness of the apology.
So when is the right time to apologize? Well, like most complicated issues in life, the answer is “it depends.” Partnoy suggests that the next time you offend a close friend or family member, you might want to think about how they will respond to an immediate apology versus one that is delayed a bit. Will the apology be more effective if it’s delivered today or tomorrow? Tomorrow or next week? If letting some time pass will give the offended party time to understand the full context of the situation and express their feelings, then chances are a delayed apology will be more effective than an immediate one.
If you’ve really screwed up, you’ll probably have to apologize several times throughout the healing process. It’s important to apologize, express remorse, and then listen. Let the offended express their feelings, observe and reorient yourself to where you stand in the healing process, and then move forward with picking up the pieces.
Sometimes when you eat crow, it’s better not to eat it hot or cold. Sometimes it’s better served warm.