Grey Matters: When to apologize when you’re not totally to blame

Screen Shot 2016-09-07 at 7.11.44 AMThis is a story about apologies featuring Liz and her best friend, John.

“I can’t believe it’s only Tuesday!” Liz texted her gay BFF. “Señor Miguels and margaritas?”

An instantaneous reply. “YEAASSS!”

It had been a couple weeks since Liz and John had gone out for drinks after work. Liz’s fault. She had a new love interest.

She wanted to leave work early, but it was 5:30pm before her boss stopped giving her work, and she could shut down my computer. Thankfully, Señor Miguel’s offers $2.50 tacos and $5 margaritas all night. It was a little bit of a walk from their work, but John’s ex-boyfriend worked as a bartender at the place, so they got a shot of tequila with every drink they ordered.

By 6:15pm, Liz had downed two carnitas tacos, two margaritas and two tequila shots. She had just ordered my third margarita and was staring at the shot, the salt shaker and the lime wedge.

“I am so in love,” she declared and handed the tequila shot to John. She was already at the point where she’d need to Uber home, and she worried that she’d lose my 5-star passenger rating if she threw up in the backseat.

“You’ve known this guy for like three weeks.” John put on a dash of salt on his hand, licked it, downed the tequila shot and sucked on the lime wedge. He cupped his hand to his ear. “Hear that?”

Liz ate a couple chips and salsa. “It’s a noisy bar. What am I supposed to hearing?”

“The sound of a basketball player grabbing a ball from the backboard.”

“What?” Liz asked.

“Rebound!” John said.

“You’re the only gay guy I know who uses sports references,” Liz said.

“What can I say? I love sports. I’m a transgender lesbian trapped in a gay man’s body.”

“I don’t even understand half the stuff you’re saying. Now, can we get back to Austin, the love of my life?”

“How old is this guy anyways?” John asked and bogarted the rest of the chips.

“He’s old enough,” Liz said.

“Old enough to drive? Vote? Buy alcohol?”

“He’s almost thirty,” Liz replied.

“And you’re almost fifty.”

“I’m barely 45.”Liz regretted giving John that tequila shot. He got nasty when he had too much to drink.

“Girl, you turned 46 three weeks ago,” John said. “We celebrated in this exact spot.”

“You’ve dated guys a lot younger than you are.”

“I’ve slept with them – not dated them.  Huge difference.” John stressed the word “huge” for some sort of emphasis.

“You’re such a man whore,” Liz said and grabbed back the chips. Liz signaled the waitress to bring more salsa. She would regret the decision in the morning when she stepped on the scales, but she hoped to soak up some of the liquor she’d drank.

“I wouldn’t object if you were just using him for sex,” John said. “But you’re insisting it’s love? Girl, please.”

“But he’s so nice,” Liz said. “We go to the park all the time and for hikes and walks on the beach. I love being with someone who isn’t just trying to impress me with fancy dinners and flowers.”

“Sounds like he’s poor. All that stuff you do doesn’t cost him anything.”

“It’s romantic.” Liz slammed her hand on the counter. The room was spinning a little bit.

“What’s his job?” John asked.

“You know how it is these days.  He’s working but looking for something more permanent.”

“He’s a barista?” John asked.

“He doesn’t work at Starbucks!” Liz was almost yelling now.

“But he does make coffee?” John smirked and nodded.

“He’s assistant manager at Perks,” she said. She emphasized his being “assistant manager” like that voided John’s point. And it might have made a difference, but Liz had invented that part up. Austin was just a regular employee.

“Is Perks the new coffee place where they brew everything to order? Costs like $5 for a thimble full of coffee?”

“Austin and I are in love,” Liz said. She paused, trying to think of something to add to that when John interrupted.

“Bitch, please. You’re not in love. Your husband left you for a girl in her twenties, and you’re just getting back at him.”

John’s words hit Liz like a slap in the face. He could be harsh, but he usually didn’t hit below the belt.

“Don’t call me a bitch. And it’s not like you’re dating anyone these days,” Liz said. “Besides, you’ve had sex with so many men I doubt there’s anyone left for you to date.”

John threw some cash onto the bar. “I don’t like being around you when you’re like this. Maybe you do need to date a child because sometimes you sure act like one.” He spun around and walked away.

The rest of the week Liz didn’t hear from John. And she didn’t try to contact him.

Austin took Liz on a hike that weekend to the top of Mount Jacinto near her house. At the top, with the beauty of the valley below them, Liz told Austin for the first time that she loved him. He replied, “Liz, you know I love you, but I just don’t want to be tied down to just one person right now.”

Liz sat on the top of the mountain and cried. She wanted to tell someone. She wanted to talk to John. But she didn’t want to hear him say, “I told you so.” And she was waiting for him to apologize.

COMMENTARY:  It’s hard to apologize when you’re not 100% at fault. In this case, both Liz and John said some things they shouldn’t have said. Liz’ work week was starting out bad, and she had a little bit too much to drink. John had good intentions and was right to warn his friend, but he went about it the wrong way. John has a funny sense of humor, and his directness makes Liz laugh all the time, but it’s tough when it’s directed at her.

If Liz and John are both to blame, then how does Liz go about her apology? Here are some simple steps.

  • Be specific: It’s important for Liz to start with owning up to what she said that was wrong. She shouldn’t have lashed out at John.
  • Offer an explanation but not an excuse: Liz should acknowledge that she had a lot of work stress that gave her a shorter fuse. She should own up to having had a lot to drink. She shouldn’t blame John for what he said to her, even if it did anger and was why she came back at him. Blaming John would be an excuse and not an explanation.
  • Be sincere: Liz should make clear that she knows that she shouldn’t have said those things to John. She shouldn’t suggest that John was being overly sensitive.
  • Make amends. Liz could invite John out for coffee and offer to treat. This puts them in a situation where neither is drinking.

It’s hard to apologize when you’re not totally at fault. And in this instance, John was probably more to blame. Applying these rules, how should John have apologized?