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How To Apologize Like an Adult

Saying sorry is one of the hardest lessons to learn as you get older -- here are 6 steps on how to apologize like an adult.

At the beginning of this semester, I messed up. I’d signed a contract with my grad school program saying I’d be present at orientation and I’d taken a job that would require me to work 12-hour days, every day, that same week.


Being an adult, signing contracts, taking on jobs and responsibilities – it’s hard. It’s impossible to not make a mistake sometimes. So what happens when we mess up?

Most people would agree that an apology is in order. But apologizing to a boss or coworker is much different than apologizing to your best friend. Apologizing to a best friend can involve tears, multiple I’m sorrys and hugs galore. But with a boss? Doing so would risk your job even more than the mistake would. And all those hugs might land you with a harassment charge.

So how do we apologize like adults? Here are a few tips for apologizing for the inevitable mistake:

1. Don’t make excuses:

Is it okay to explain why you made the mistake? Sure. But make sure you phrase it as exactly that: an explanation. An explanation goes something like this… “I did A and forgot B. It’s not an excuse for my mistake, but it explains why it happened.”

Making excuses will only make you sound childish. It will also seem like you’re trying to throw the blame elsewhere. Learn how to own up to your mistakes instead of weaseling your way out of them. And keep the word “but” out of the conversation!

2. Actually apologize — but only once:

I, of course, called my mom when I realized the mistake I had made. The words she said have stuck with me all semester and probably will for the rest of my life. She said, “apologize, but not more than once.”

Apologizing more than once often comes off as begging for forgiveness. Also, saying “I’m so sorry, I really am. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I apologize,” sounds brown nosing.

3. Make it better:

I had to work out a way to be at grad orientation and at my job. I had to sacrifice some time of each, but ultimately, I did everything I could to split my time in order to uphold my end of each contract.

An important part of apologizing is being willing to fix your mistake. Saying “I’m sorry” without working to make it better doesn’t really show your boss or coworker you’re sorry. It shows that you don’t care enough to fix your mistake.

4. Forgiveness does not equal forgetting:

Your boss has no obligation to forgive you, but they especially don’t have any obligation to forget. Making a mistake breaks trust and, like it is with friends, trust must be earned and rebuilt when it’s broken.

Just because you tell your boss you’re sorry doesn’t mean he or she is going to forget what you did, even if they do forgive you. After making a mistake, you’re going to have to work to regain their trust. It may take a while. It may be frustrating, (especially if the mistake was a one-time thing). But, it will also be rewarding when you realize you’ve regained your supervisor’s trust.

5. Don’t make it about you:

The last thing you should do when you’ve wronged someone or made a mistake is make it all about you. Make sure you take the time to listen to what your boss or coworker has to say. Saying things like “I’m sorry I’m not perfect; I’m sorry I’m the worst; I’m sorry I am a bad employee” will only make you sound self-absorbed, self-sacrificing (in a bad way) and like you’re playing the victim. You don’t want to make someone feel like they have to boost your ego when you’re there to apologize.

6. Follow up:

Perhaps you forgot to file some papers. Or perhaps you handled a customer the wrong way. After apologizing, being chastised, and facing the consequences, be sure to check in with your boss or coworker to see if you’re doing better. Ask if there’s anything you can do in the future to avoid the same mistake… and make sure you do it.

Apologizing like an adult is all about sincerity and follow through. If you want people to believe you when you apologize, you better make sure you it’s sincere. An apology is empty if you don’t work to fix your mistake.

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About the Author

Maggie Marshall

Maggie is a senior English major at Abilene Christian University. She enjoys creative writing, reading everything she can get her hands on, and learning what it means to be a grown-up. After graduation, she plans to pursue a MFA in creative writing and perhaps a PhD after that, all while working on getting published and finding as many writing opportunities as possible. She would love to continue contributing to sites like GenTwenty and perhaps, after getting her doctorate, become a professor of creative writing at a university.