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Dear Heidi: How do you know when to apologize?

Inconsiderate family members can be trying. But we must set boundaries ahead of time to avoid losing our tempers.

It's not easy to balance your work-life with your life-life during the best of times, and now that we are in the pandemic worst of times — apologies to Mr. Dickens — how can we be more aware and considerate of others and respectful to ourselves? How do we know when we cross a line, and an apology is appropriate?

The global pandemic has affected every one of us on the planet in unique ways. Many of us work from home, home-schooling children, caring for elderly parents, taking care of beloved family pets, and keeping up with the laundry. We’re just trying to keep a lid on things with the one frayed nerve we have left. Now is the time to muster as much empathy as possible, and to steer clear of potential offensive situations.

Because we are "at home," some family members and friends feel they have carte blanche to call or text anytime and expect an immediate response. The intrusive, yet well-meaning contacts disrupt your flow and make you less productive. How do you tell your loved one to kindly back-off, at least during business hours—whatever that means to you? The short answer is, do not wait to say something. Set some ground rules from the beginning. If you do not have any standards established, it's not too late; lay them down now, and save yourself having to apologize later.

Generally, when something gets on your nerves — okay, these days your last nerve — then speak up with respect, and politely get it off your chest. For example, I have a friend who calls her adult children several times a day to "check-in." She doesn't have anything specific to say, just "checking-in." Her calls interrupt their work-from-home day and their social life. But, they hesitate to ask her to stop calling, and one day her son snapped at her. The mother's feelings were hurt, her son felt remorseful, and it ended poorly. Instead of setting some ground rules early on when calls are welcome, his mother was unaware she had crossed a line. The son called his mother to apologize, but a cloud hung over him the rest of the day while trying to finish a stressful project.  

Years ago, I remembered my mother calling me at work, usually in July, to make plans for the holidays. She had a knack for calling at the exact wrong moment. I would explain that I couldn't think that far in advance at that particular moment. She was always offended, and I always called back to apologize to her. In retrospect, I should have planned a time to talk about holiday plans convenient for me, a good time for her, and avoided those contentious July phone calls.

Etiquette dictates that you offer an apology when you have offended someone. If you have caused distress to someone else, you should apologize with sincerity. A good apology begins with, "I am sorry…" and ends with why you are sorry. For instance, "I am sorry I do not have time to discuss holiday plans at present. May I call you this weekend to talk about it?" Or, "I am sorry I lost my temper and snapped at you, Mom. Could we please talk at the end of the day instead of during the workday because work has been extremely stressful lately." 

There is etiquette to accepting an apology too. If someone offers a heartfelt apology, receive it with gratitude, not a re-hash of why an apology is appropriate. For example, my friend, the mother, could reply to her son's apology, "Thank you son. I'm glad to know that it's best for me to check-in with you at the end of the day." Accept an apology in the spirit given. 

It is always best to avoid offending or causing negative feelings to others and not put yourself in a position where an apology is necessary. Open your toolbox of social codes to help you through. Treat others with kindness and respect, practice empathy, establish some ground rules, and try to avoid situations that can cause an affront.  


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