Ever stumbled for a good way to say you’re sorry?
Don’t worry, science has your back. Researchers at Ohio State University recently broke an apology down into six basic components and asked over 700 people to rate which ones — and which combinations of them — were most effective.
Want to know what the six elements were?
No list is complete without examples, so let’s take the catchiest apology ever — “Apology Song” by The Decemberists — as our test subject. (If you don’t know the song, by the way, it’s about apologizing to a friend after letting their bike, Madeleine, get stolen. You can listen to it here.)
1. First, an “expression of regret.” In other words, say you’re sorry.
This is a simple one and maybe not as important as some of the other elements in this list, but it’s remarkable how many times people try to apologize without, you know, apologizing.
So how do The Decemberists measure up? Pretty good. They nail this one right at the beginning of the song:
“I’m really sorry, Steven, / But your bicycle’s been stolen.”
Pretty good! But what’s next?
2. An explanation of what went wrong.
It’s a good idea to explain what happened. An explanation isn’t an excuse, but it can help the aggrieved person understand the circumstances.
“I meant her no harm / When I left her unlocked / Outside the Orange Street Food Farm. / I was just running in / Didn’t think I’d be that long. / I came out, she was gone.”
Takes them a little bit to get to it, but it’s in there. Doing good so far!
3. An acknowledgment of responsibility: “It’s my fault.”
OK, this is a biggie. And is actually one of the most important parts of an apology, according to the study. If something is your fault, admit it.
Let’s check the lyrics:
“I was watching it for you / ‘Til you came back in the fall. / I guess I didn’t do such a good job after all.”
That last part — “I didn’t do such a good job” — that’s the key. It was their fault, and they’re willing to admit it. So far, they’ve been hitting all the right notes.
4. A declaration of repentance – “I won’t let it happen again.”
Showing that you’ve learned a lesson and are taking steps to make sure it won’t happen again is another important point.
Unfortunately, it’s one that The Decemberists miss in this song. If they wanted full marks, they should have explained how they were going to invest in some super-duper bike locks or a personal bike guard dog or something equally anti-theft.
In verse, of course.
5. This is another big one: offering to make it right.
Ouch, another one The Decemberists missed, and it’s a biggie — saying how you’ll fix the problem.
So what could The Decemberists have done differently? Well, they do say:
“Where has she gone? / Well, I bet she’s on the bottom of a Frenchtown pond.”
This is the point where they should have sung about breaking out the scuba gear or draining the pond to get to poor Madeleine. (Ponds are apparently completely filled with bicycles anyways, if that canal proves anything.)
Or, you know, getting them a new bike. But scuba diving’s more fun.
6. Lastly, a request for forgiveness.
This is actually the least important part of the apology.
“That’s the one you can leave out if you have to,” said the study’s lead author, Roy Lewicki, in a press release.
But it’s always good to include it if you have time. And on this, The Decemberists nail it again:
“So I wrote you this song / In the hopes that you’d forgive me / Even though it was wrong / being so careless with a thing so great.”
The most effective apologies contained all six elements, according to Lewicki, but admitting fault, offering a fix, and giving an explanation seemed to be the most important combination.
As to why those three were most important, the authors think it’s because they most directly address the original violation of trust while the others are more ephemeral.
Remember, though, this isn’t a cheat sheet. If you’re not genuinely sorry, it means nothing. And even if you hit the high-score best apology of all time, the other person doesn’t have to accept it. And that’s OK.
So how did our band do? Altogether, The Decemberists get 4 out of 6. They left out two elements, but nailed some of the big ones. So I’d definitely accept that apology.
If you need to apologize and are stumbling for words, remember this:
“I’m sorry, it was my fault. Here’s what happened. I won’t let it happen again, and here’s how I can make this right. Forgive me?”
Hopefully that’ll help patch up any bike-related mishaps in your life.
Thumbnail from Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images, showing The Decemberists’ lead singer, Colin Meloy, at the 2016 Byron Bay Bluesfest.