The crucial apology etiquette rules. The appropriate behavior for apologizing to other people and improving relationships.

What apology etiquette is

Apology etiquette is the set of rules to properly apologize to other people. Such rules include:

  • How to prepare before apologizing.
  • How to make an effective apology.
  • The mistakes to avoid.

Respect apology etiquette to avoid offending others, amend a mistake, and improve your relationships.

General apology etiquette principles

Apology etiquette is based on two main principles.

  • Apologies are a normal step of relationship building.
  • An apology is a commitment to improving future interactions with a person or a group of people.
rules to make an effective apology

Apology etiquette rules

1) How to prepare: an apology is not such a big deal

An apology is effective when it is sincere and heartfelt. However, we cannot make a sincere apology as long as we perceive it as a somehow degrading or humiliating task for ourselves. Thus, before we apologize, we need to visualize the apology from the correct positive perspective.

Apologizing is a normal part of relationship building. We build relationships with others through trials and errors. In this process, it is perfectly normal to make mistakes. Making a mistake in a relationship is a step that enables learning, and that allows the relationship to progress and grow stronger.

Thus, an apology is a positive message. It means that you care about the other person or group and that you care about your relationship with them. An apology shows your willingness to keep the relationship alive and make it stronger. As such, an apology is rather a display of strength than a display of weakness. It shows that you are confident enough to apologize and willing to improve yourself.

2) Understand why you need to apologize

To make a sincere and effective apology, you first need to understand what went wrong. This means understanding which actions have hurt the other person and the reason why the other person felt hurt.

3) Make the apology proportional to the damage

It is good etiquette to make the apology proportional to the damage.

For a simple infraction, a sincere but quick apology works. You can even apologize with a text message or a short phone call.

However, for more serious offenses, you should apologize in person. Take enough time to apologize to the other person and show your effort. Find the most appropriate time to apologize, such as when the other person is available and open to receiving your apology.

You may even consider writing a follow-up note or getting a make-up gift. The goal is not to bribe the other person to forgive you. These actions are meant to show that you are making an effort and that you are sorry.

4) Take responsibility for your mistake

When you apologize, avoid the “but”. Take full responsibility for your mistake. Do not mention what caused your mistake, or any mitigating factor. Apologize in simple and appropriate language and show positive body language.

If you caused any physical damage, you should offer to compensate for it. As an example, if you break a glass, offer to re-pay for it. If you spill food or beverage on someone else’s dress, offer to pay for professional cleaning.

5) Show that you understand why you were wrong

If you made a serious mistake, you should show the other person that you understand why your actions were wrong. This is the only effective way to convince the other person that you will not repeat the same mistake in the future.

6) An apology is a commitment to improve

Do not apologize if you believe that you are going to repeat the same negative behavior. An apology is a commitment. It shows that you understand the mistake and its consequences and that you are going to learn from it. Thus, when you apologize, you should say out loud that you are making a commitment to avoid repeating the same mistake.

7) Do not over-apologize

Over-apologizing is against etiquette. Too many apologies, or too long apologies, risk embarrassing the other person and being inappropriate.

You do not need to apologize for everything. Many small mistakes do not even require an apology. Even more, never apologize for anything that is not a consequence of your actions.

Similarly, do not make an excessively long or dramatic apology for small infractions. As an example, if you drop and break a glass and apologize for 10 minutes, you will embarrass your host.

8) Respect apology etiquette and move on

Apologies are a normal step of relationship building. We should do our best to keep the appropriate behaviors and respect etiquette. However, if the other persons do not respond as we wished, we should move on.

How to deal with someone who does not apologize

If you feel that someone owes you an apology but does not apologize, you can confront the person. Speak in a neutral and non-threatening tone of voice. Explain why you think that you are owed an apology, and ask what the other person thinks about it. Try to understand the other person’s reasons.

If you cannot reach an agreement, move on. If appropriate, review the terms of your relationship with that person.

How to deal with someone who does not accept your apology

If someone does not accept your apology, you should ask why. Listen to their reasons. Then, take some time to think about it. If there is no way to improve the situation, move on. When someone does not accept your apology, it means that the terms of your relationship are going to change somehow, and the most appropriate way to deal with it is to accept it.

Apology etiquette at work

Apology etiquette is especially important in the workplace. Your manager, coworkers, customers, and business partners must believe that they can build a productive, long-standing work relationship with you.

Thus, if you make a mistake at work, you need to properly apologize to repair trust. Apologize promptly and thoroughly. Behavioral mistakes can be even more serious than technical mistakes. It is easier to correct a technical mistake than correct a behavioral mistake. In fact, it is sufficient to improve your technical knowledge to correct a technical mistake. While correcting a behavioral mistake requires maturation and self-improvement, which usually take a long time and significant effort.

When apologizing at work, it is primarily important to show your commitment to improving. To reinforce such commitment, it is appropriate to ask for help. For example, you can admit to your managers that you need improvement in one area, and you can ask for their support.

apology etiquette worst mistakes

Apology etiquette: the worst mistakes

The Rude Index identifies and ranks negative behaviors. 

A high score (8-10) means that the behavior has the potential to trigger a conflict with others. A medium score (4-7) means that the behavior risks making you look inelegant and unsophisticated. More about the Rude Index and its methodology here.  

Avoid the worst apology etiquette mistakes. 

  • 10/10. Not apologizing when you should.
  • 8/10. Making an insincere apology.
  • 8/10. Apologizing with a “but”.
  • 7/10. Over-apologizing. 
  • 7/10. Not making the apology proportional to the damage.


  • The Organizational Apology: