Sometimes it’s hard to be an adult on the internet. For me, that came up today when I accidentally started a fight, then pushed harder on it until we were at the point of muting each other, and walking away stewing.
The fact that it was probably pushed along by a variety of factors including hangry-ness, stress spillover, and having my buttons pushed doesn’t matter. What does matter, is that a mutual friend called me out on bad behavior. And I responded by apologizing to the person with whom I was having a fight. A real apology. Owning up to the fact that I had been behaving badly.
Now, this doesn’t change that I said a bunch of mean things, or that my opinion is any different. And it certainly doesn’t mean I won’t behave badly in the future. But it does mean that I am willing to acknowledge wrongdoing and try to repair a relationship and reputation.
The attempt to amicably resolve things after the fact here is the most important part, and here’s why: On the internet, your behavior is part of your brand, and reflects on you as a person, as a professional, and as a potential partner. If I am known as someone who picks stupid fights on the internet, that is likely to color opinions of me. But a proper apology changes that outcome. It shows that even if I pick a fight about something, I can accept outside criticism of that behavior and acknowledge when I’m wrongheaded. It improves reputation. And it’s hard.
Words are hard, though. And poor apologies always ring false and leave you in a worse position than no apology at all because you come off as untrustworthy. You’re not a little kid anymore, being forced to mutter “sorry” to the person you hit. You’re an adult. And hopefully, you want to be a good one.
Apologies extend to other professional spaces too. Late projects, costly mistakes, the list of things you might have to apologize for is plenty long. In this case, apologies are not just about your behavior. They have to create action and avoid excuses, the latter of which is immensely difficult. My personal bias is to refrain from making excuses, and instead only make plans of action. Save the reasons for a retrospective, and analyze what went wrong, there. As part of an apology, it’s an excuse.
In closing, I had thought to offer some ridiculous comparison to a utopia where no one is ever hurt, but I don’t think that is useful. Instead, consider this existence to be the prototype of that perfect world and help improve it by learning how to apologize better. And when (not if) you hurt someone and you feel badly about it, practice that skill. It will make that relationship stronger, and it will improve the world. It only takes one “I’m sorry” at a time.