Opinion

How to reject an apology

When you do something wrong, you’re taught to say sorry.

Screaming toddlers are forced into awkward handshakes, colleagues send grovelling emails to avoid mediation with HR and lovers who screw up – or around – keep florists in business all year round.

But what they don’t tell you about apologies – the big secret – is you don’t have to accept them.

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Oh, sure, the done thing is to graciously smile and absolve your offender, both moving on with your lives as if it never happened. And most of the time, that’s the best thing for all concerned. But there are some misdemeanours that don’t deserve it. It may not be a very 2017 thing to do, but there are times when an apology could, and should, be met with a “fuck you”.

I feel awful having another pop at social media because it’s all anyone ever writes about these days, and it really is brilliant, but it doesn’t half come with some baggage. It keeps you in touch. Embers continue to burn. And, worst of all, it can reunite, long after you’d thought – hoped – you’d never see someone again. It can be grim.

One such subset of “My God it’s you!” that not everyone has to endure, thankfully, is the school bully. Everyone’s experiences at school differ wildly, and you can be sitting in the same form room as someone for five years and never know what’s going through their head, but, for me, there’s something quite distasteful about an old tormentor getting in touch, usually on Facebook.

Quite why someone who’d call me a “poof” every day and mock my name and my voice and the way I played sport and, Christ, just everything, would be interested in what I have to say as a middle-aged man, I have no idea. But here they are, lining up to take an interest in you, showing you pictures of their children.

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Thing is, bully is quite a strong word – you have to be careful with it. But you mustn’t demean it, either. And while to the perpetrators, joining in with the name-calling or the subtle kicks as I passed in the corridor doesn’t constitute bullying, it’s important to remember they wouldn’t get away with it now. Nor should they.

But they pop up all the same, with a friend request here or an Instagram follow there. And like a terminal case of Stockholm syndrome, you accept, usually after furrowing your brow and wondering what these hangers-on actually want.

It cheers you, perhaps, to see their lives haven’t turned out great. Maybe they want to say sorry, to make amends for what they’ve done. If you want to accept that apology, and feel it will heal some of your wounds, then I have nothing but admiration for you. I, however, am not interested in nostalgia nor negotiating with these arseholes. Their heartfelt apologies are meaningless; what use would I have for them now?

And, of course, most of them don’t even attempt to apologise – they’re oblivious. Your memory does not align with theirs, or “it was all a long time ago”. This is true, but although I’ve moved on, I’m not taking them with me.

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I’m always reminded of a guy I used to work with years ago, not long after I came out, when I was still green and insecure. He was cool, handsome and popular, but he wasn’t a fan of me. Understandable, I thought at the time. He would sneer as I walked by his desk, and really obviously slam his back against a wall should I get into the lift with him. He wasn’t overtly nasty, but there was an air of menace about him. He even hacked into another gay colleague’s email and messaged me, posing as the gay colleague asking me on a date, which was humiliating all round. He’d make me feel sad.

On my last day, before I left to move to London, I had to make a leaving speech to the entire department. I had nothing to lose, so it was – surprise, surprise – on the acerbic side, but grateful, witty. I don’t burn bridges. Later, he came up to me in the pub with another girl who had also been a massive cow to me and said: “Your speech was brilliant. I kind of wish I’d got to know you better. I was just saying to Caroline,” here he nodded to his grinning moll, “I bet you’re great to go for a pint with.”

Here it was, the fairy-tale ending, the final frame, the bit where we all shake hands and do man-hugs and clink tankards of ale and let bygones be bygones. Beautiful.

However.

Reader, I told him to go fuck himself.

It was too late. Was I supposed to be honoured that he’d got me wrong all along? He could’ve spoken to me any time he liked, or acted like a normal person in the lift, but no. He chose to be mean, and now it was my turn. He didn’t care about my feelings before my speech, why should I be elated at his eleventh hour endorsement now? Slide on.

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I’ve been a nasty person in the past. If I were honest with myself – and I try to be – I reckon I could conjure up more than a handful of times I’ve been a bit of a bully, that I’ve made someone feel like crap. Most of the time I’ve made things right, or at least tried, and for those who drifted away, sometimes I sleeplessly wonder whether I should look them up, get in touch, have a quick Facebook stalk and then offer my apology.

I always stop myself though. Who am I doing this for? Do I just want to make myself feel better? Will popping up, with no warning, after 10, 15 or 20 years actually do them more harm than good? What right do I have to nudge my way back into their lives, no doubt very different now, and say “Hey, remember me! Sorry I was an asshole! Can we make nice?” What if they’d been trying to forget me, thank you very much? What if they’d almost succeeded?

Once I got a Facebook message from a former bully I barely remembered: “It turned out I was gay all along!  Isn’t that funny?”

Usually I’d have gone with it, accepted the friend request and exchanged pleasantries, but enough was enough. I told him I was unmoved by his big reveal, because I hadn’t known I was gay at school either, although he delighted in telling me I was enough times. And then I suggested he avail himself of a glass dildo.

I’m not bitter; I just wasn’t interested in making him feel good.

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If you were horrible to someone and want to make amends, get in touch and apologise – and you don’t think it’s going to trigger an even bigger nightmare for both of you – you should probably do it. Seriously, I see nothing wrong with having a go. But here’s the thing: don’t expect them to give a fuck.

They don’t owe you anything. They’re not your dumpster, for you to offload all your festering guilt. If they don’t want to have it out, if they deny you your Kodak moment, then you have to accept it. Apologising puts them under pressure to forgive, to be the bigger person, but sometimes it’s even bigger to say, “You know what? You can seek your absolution somewhere else. I’m not interested.”

They’re not your bitch anymore.

Don’t boohoo, don’t tell them you’ve changed, don’t ask them why – just acknowledge you did wrong, and get the hell out of their lives.

And don’t come back.

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  1. I think you were very tolerant to put up with that arsehat being (mildly) homophobic at your workplace (and that email hacking thing – if done on a company email account – was probably illegal, but hey) and I am not sure I would have been so accommodating. There again, you probably know how to choose your battles more wisely than I do. My main point in commenting, though, is to totally support your statement: “Their heartfelt apologies are meaningless; what use would I have for them now?” By accepting such apologies, it’s kind of letting people off the hook and kind of condoning their bullying ways. We’re actually *not* helping such people if we don’t maintain our boundaries, because the message we send out is: “Aw, shucks, that’s ok. I was probably as much at fault myself.” Er no. We shouldn’t have to apologise for existing.

    And now I’m off to link someone to your page who spent her time as a teenager calling me a “poof” and generally being a homophobic bitch and who recently added me on FB …

  2. Excellent way to look at this. Have seen a lot of those ‘bully apologises to victim years later’ stories on Facebook in recent years. I haven’t had one try it on but have wondered how I would react, knowing who I am probably with a meek and spineless acceptance of their apology. I think I could react differently now, especially if I ever hear from the one in high school that tortured me incessantly because my dad had died.

  3. Thank you so much for this – nice to finally see an affirmation of the right to keep your boudaries when the past creeps up on you.

    My fiancée and I have a shitty ex-friend who has taken to spamming our private profiles with follow requests and “just be real with me, do you like me” comments, then switching to other accounts to circumvent blocks. Recently he’s started recruiting his friends into pressuring us, too. Why is it up to us to give him closure when he was such an abusive guy?

    At the risk of throwing more shade at social networks, they still don’t seem to understand how to handle this sort of thing. Even reporting all this fell on deaf ears, despite the volume of screenshots and the level of harassment. I guess it just looks benign to their moderators because his comments “look friendly”. Oh well.

    Sorry for the ramble. Thanks again for this though. I feel less crazy that I’m not letting him back into my life.

  4. Hmmm. I’m sure you’ll disagree with me, but that entire article suggest that you haven’t moved on and you are bitter.

    eg
    “I told him to go fuck himself.”
    “I suggested he avail himself of a glass dildo.”

    These are not comments associated with pleasant geniality.

    I went through this. I’ve had a lot of people on Facebook apologise, only one of which was clearly doing it insincerely to deal with guilt or something (maybe The Landmark Forum or something). In fact, I’ve even been to a reunion thing and found out that being mercilessly teased and bullied for being gay was actually quite common, even for those who weren’t gay. I was bitter for a long time (although I didn’t pretend I wasn’t while in the same article proving otherwise – own your bitterness, dear), but 20-something years later… well, it’s just not worth it. We were all arseholes at school. And not we’re (mostly) different people.

    You scan choose to hang on to that pain or you can choose to move on. You can choose to make bitter retorts to people who might genuinely be trying to make amends. Or you can choose to ignore them.

    1. We all have different ways of moving on. Nobody gets to decide whether the way we choose to do it is right or wrong. You suggest I’m still bitter, but I can only tell you I’m not. But moving on doesn’t mean I have to accord them any ‘pleasant geniality’. So we’re all different now – so what? People trying to make amends usually want something, so in return I provided them with a “fuck you”. I’d say I owed them that at least. It’s not bitterness, it’s control. And at long last, that lies with me, ‘dear’.

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