Regret and Remorse
In order to really appreciate or understand the crucial role perfect apologies can play
in our daily lives it helps to understand the differences between the mistakes we
make and the apologies we deliver as a resultsome actions we regret,
while others we are
truly sorry for.
We'll begin here by describing important distinctions
between mistakes and actions that elicit feelings of regret and those that expose
stronger feelings of remorse. Perfect apologies should be tailored to
address one or the other type of mistake, in most cases.
Regret is a rational, intelligent and, on occasion, emotional reaction to
some unexpected, unintended and often costly consequence of some event or
Apologies that expose feelings of regret are often designed to address the
consequences of actions people have taken but wish they hadn't, or actions
they have not yet taken but wish they had. We usually regret the
consequences of relatively minor mistakes or errors and, given the option of
revisiting the decision, would probably decide to do something else.
However, we also express regrets for the consequences of events over which
we have very little control, or for actions that are intentionally taken for
perfectly rational reasons but nevertheless produce unintended
consequencesan apology from an airline to its passengers
for cancelling a flight; an apology from a mechanic for
charging much more than a customer expected for unforeseen repairs; an
apology for having to fire someone because of poor job performance or
Companies often express regrets for the harm caused by their decision
despite the fact that a similar decision would be taken in the future for
the same reasons. For example, airlines often apologize for cancelling flights because of
poor weather but would do the same thing under similar circumstances in the
future. Decisions can be right even if the consequences for the customer are
costly. In fact most business apologies take the form of addressing the
consequences of one or another unavoidable yet regrettable event.
Regrets are typically amoralthere is no right or wrong associated
with the actions; it's the consequences that matter (Miller 2005:83)1. In
most of these cases the expression of regret through an apology is really
Remorse, on the other hand, takes on a bitter, deeper form that elicits
much stronger personal and emotional reactions to personal guilt, societal
shame, humiliation, resentment and often anger.
While regret is amoral and
concerned with good versus bad consequences, remorse has more to do with
right versus wrong actions2. Feelings of remorse are often caused by actions
that constitute serious and painful errors of judgment and
often draws out powerful compulsions to fix the mistake(s) through personal
change and sacrifice.
Learn about remorse and self-forgiveness.
Or, review our selection of quotes on regret and our collection of
1 William Ian Miller (2005) Faking It. London: Cambridge University Press.