User:Geo Swan/On apologies

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On apologies...[edit]

I am drafting this essay to express my general preference around apologies.

  1. Will I demand apologies from others, when I think they have realized: (1) they were mistaken; and (2) they crossed the boundary into incivility?
  2. Will I offer an apology when I realize I was mistaken, or I lapsed and crossed the boundary into incivility?

In summary, I will agree to have my good faith collaborators simply openly acknowledge mistakes, and forgo the possible humiliation of an apology, and I would appreciate my good faith collaborators accepting my open acknowledgment of my mistakes, without insisting on an apology.

People don't like apologizing and almost everyone sucks at it[edit]

People don't like apologizing. Almost everyone sucks at it. Some people may take extreme measures to avoid apologizing.

I am old enough that I have had lots of opportunities to watch what happens after someone who sucks at apologizing, and who may have tried their best to avoid apologizing, feels forced to apologize anyhow.

  1. Generally their forced apology doesn't satisfy the offended party, because it doesn't seem sincere;
  2. They often resent being forced to apologize so much that they harbour dark thoughts, and fantasize about the moment when the tables will be turned, and they can get their revenge.

Neither the disappointment of the recipient of the apology, or the apologizer's biding their time to the moment when they can get revenge, is good for a project that aims for a civil, collegial atmosphere.

Gerald Weinberg's advice on the "egoless programming team"[edit]

Back in the 1970s Computer Scientist Gerald Weinberg wrote about the egoless programming team. I think his advice then is fully applicable to the wikipedia team today.

His advice was that teams that worked on the premise that everyone was fallible, and everyone could benefit from early tactful feedback on their efforts, were much more productive. He advised team members to detach their egos from their work, to remember they too were fallible. He encouraged team members to seek feedback from other team members over their work early, counting on the other team members to give that feedback in a tactful, constructive manner.

Ideally, none of us would be offended by tactful intended questions about our efforts, or tactfully intended advice. Ideally, we'd remember to assume good faith (WP:AGF), and remember to assume these questions or advice was intended to be tactful, even if it rubbed us the wrong way. Because none of us are infallible.

Unfortunately, both in real life, and here on the wikipedia, one encounters individuals who react to any question, or any advice, as if it were a personal attack, no matter how tactfully it is phrased. I am afraid that in my nine plus years here I have encountered a number of individuals we have entrusted with administrator authority who interpret even the most civil questions about their exercise of authority as if they were personal attacks. I see this as a serious problem.

What if you are considering apologizing to me?[edit]

Short answer. Don't. I would rather have a simple acknowledgment that you realized you made a mistake, that stops short of an apology.

Long answer. I would rather have a simple acknowledgment that you realized you made a mistake, that stops short of an apology, than an apology for several reasons:

  1. Forced apologies that seem to lack sincerity aren't satisfying;
  2. Sincere full apologies are a trememdous effort -- I'd rather you were able to channel that effort into good work on the project, and I am sure you would feel better about it too;
  3. Because being forced to apologize is often followed by biding time to the moment when the tables can be turned, I'd rather skip the forced apology, and skip the table turning, and have both of us do our best to work in a collegial manner.

Of course, if you think you can (1) openly acknowledge a mistake; (2) and apologize, and (3) work with me in a collegial manner afterwards, go ahead. I'll try to be as gracious as possible in accepting your apology.

My second choice, if you can't openly acknowledge you made a mistake, then I would prefer you stop participating in that topic. We are all supposed to do our best to assume good faith here. The way I see it the corollary of AGF is that we should all do our best to show we are worthy of that trust, of that assumption of good faith. Openly acknowledging when we realize we are mistaken is an aid to our fellow team members, because it shows we really are worthy of the assumption of good faith.

So, if you can't openly acknowledge your mistake, I would rather you stop participating in that topic, because one sometimes sees rogue participants, who argue for a position, are uncivil in doing so, only to go silent when the consensus goes against them -- because they are biding their time for another opportunity to advance their non-consensual agenda.

The open acknowledgment of error[edit]

I consider the open acknowledgment of error important. It too can be unpleasant. It can be much more unpleasant in an ego-driven argument, than in a collegial, ego-less dialogue. But it is important.

Some people think I am being a bit of a dick sometimes, think I am hounding someone, when they think it is obvious to everone that they made a mistake. I wouldn't insist on spelling out a person's mistake to shame them, or because I wanted them to make an apology. I will sometimes insist on spelling out a mistake when my judgment, and that person's past history, suggest to me that they may be one of those individuals I described above who hasn't acknowledged their mistake because they won't abide by a consensus, and are just biding their time for another opportunity to try again.

What if you think I should apologize to you?[edit]

Short answer: I'll apologize.

Full apologies[edit]

Long answer: I'll apologize, if I am honestly convinced I made a mistake, or lapsed from civility, I will both apologize, and openly acknowledge the mistake.

Limited apologies[edit]

What if you insist on an apology, but I think you were offended by a good faith comment you interpreted as a lapse from civility -- but wasn't? I can give limited apologies in this kind of situation as well as the next guy or gal.

But really, do you want this kind of apology? In an egoless world, wouldn't you prefer something like: "Comment Xyz rubbed you the wrong way? Gee, I didn't expect that. I'll avoid that kind of comment in future."

The open acknowledgment of error, redux[edit]

While I will apologize, if you insist, I too have a limited amount of effort to expend, just as I'd rather have my good faith collaborators forgo the effort of a full apology for me, so long as they worked collegially with me in future, I'd prefer to spend my effort on collegially working with you.

Tricks to avoid the necessity of an apology[edit]

Be tactful in how you challenge people's contributions or opinions. If you were initially tactful in your challenge, then, if it turns out you were dead-wrong, you probably won't have anyone feel you owe an apology.

Asking questions of one's correspondents can acheive the same result as head to head, brash, ego-driven, list of all the reasons you think they are mistaken, with less damage to the project's atmosphere of civility and collegiality. But, more importantly for the person who is considering an ego-driven, hierarchical, know-it-all list of reasons why the other guy or gal isn't as smart, or experienced, or well-informed as you are -- there are going to be times when we are mistaken.

I can remember the tremendous feeling of relief the first couple of times I had tried the get my point across, using ego-less questions, instead of head-to-head know-it-all-ism, simply out of tactfulness, only to have my correspondent's reply show how wrong I was to think I was smarter, more experienced, or more well-informed than they were. It was a wonderful and unexpected pay-off from trying to be tactful that it saved me from the large embarrassment of having my know-it-all attitude being exposed as hollow for all the world to see.

Tact doesn't always work[edit]

When I was back at University one of my pals had a note she would put on her office door, when she was so busy she wanted people to really understand she didn't want to be disturbed. Rather than say "do not disturb", it said:

There is no tactful way to say fuck off

Sometimes tact will fail on you. There are some people who, due to enormous egos, or basic dimwittedness, discount anything expressed in a tactful manner. With them you may have to forgo tactfulness.

Ideally, the community would have good mechanisms for dealing with problematic people. Trying to use these mechanisms is an option to abandoning tact and trying to go head-to-head, on your own. Unfortunately, IMO, our mechanisms are a work in progress, and it has taken a year or more for some of our worst fire-ships of discord to be permanently blocked.

Please, if you are someone who has been told tact fails on you, read Don't be a dick.


If I asked you questions, and you think I owe you an apology for those questions, please (re-)read this whole essay. As I explain above I consider the open acknowledgment of error more important than actual apologies.

I am committed to openly acknowledging my own mistakes, even when doing so is unpleasant. If you think I made a mistake, please tell me where and when, in a civil, specific manner. If I agree, I'll own up.

If you think you want an apology, as well, say so, and I will consider it.

I added this epilog because I am considering linking to the epilog on talk pages when I ask what I intend to be civil, good faith questions; intended to enhance the project, but it occurs to me that, for various reasons, my correspondent might interpret them differently.

Cheers! Geo Swan (talk) 21:04, 9 January 2010 (UTC)

See also[edit]

Category:User essays on civility