A phone showing a sorry text
Collage by Cath Virginia

How to Truly Apologise When You Mess Up

You don't have to reach for a ukelele.
A celebration of history's biggest fuck-ups.

So you fucked up. Now comes that pit-of-the-stomach feeling: The red wine’s all over your mate’s new carpet, or the words came out just completely wrong, or a tweet you don’t even remember writing has been dug out of the online ether. 

Everything in you wants to cycle back a few minutes, but this moment of guttural dread is actually the pivotal part. When you see a celeb post a Notes app screenshot beginning with something like “This isn’t just a bullshit apology…”, you’re seeing the same glimpse of pure panic. You’re witnessing the depths of people’s “oh shit” moments. More recently, 2010s-era YouTuber Colleen Ballinger even whipped out a ukulele to address rumours about her treatment of underage fans.


So how should you actually respond in these situations? We all have our “oh shit” moments, but the trick is to stay level-headed and rational in the immediate aftermath. Being informed also helps, so we’ve put together a few common situations, and devised some actually-useful advice from people who know what they’re talking about. 

You spill red wine on your mate’s carpet 

A classic. It’s all over the floor with the empty glass laying next to it like a crime scene. Ann Russell, the unofficial “TikTok auntie” and a fountain of knowledge for all our household cleaning tips, has a few tips for this one. 

“Quickly chuck a towel down and stand on it to soak up as much as possible. Then pour cold water over and repeat with a dry bit of towel,” she tells VICE. “Keep going until most of it is gone – if it doesn’t dry it should pretty much all come up. Then cover the stain with lots of salt and go to bed.”

“The next morning, sweep up the salt carefully and if the stain is still there use a carpet shampoo.” Crisis averted – thanks Ann!

You accidentally misgender someone

If you do this on purpose, we’re not talking to you – that just makes you a dick. But if someone has recently updated their pronouns, or you assume wrong and get corrected, it isn’t the end of the world! “There's no reason to panic. The other day I misgendered myself and I'm pretty sure I'm not a bigot as far as I know,” says comedian and actor Mae Martin.

Mae gives us some good advice on how to fix it: “Nobody is asking you to use specific pronouns for them as part of some sneaky test to evaluate your level of wokeness. They just want to be seen the way they see themselves, and gendering someone correctly is a really surefire way to show you respect them and stop them experiencing unnecessary bouts of discomfort and embarrassment.”


“If you mess up,” they add, “DON'T berate yourself, don't explain that it's just REALLY hard, don't burst into tears and run from the room... It's nobody's job to reassure and comfort you. DO quickly correct yourself and keep moving. That's it, it's that easy!” 

And hey, cut yourself some slack – at least you’re not a Twitter bigot who jokes about identifying as a two-spirit penguin. “Give yourself a break for not always getting it right, and give yourself a pat on the back for being a cool person in the world,” says Mae.

You hit someone in the balls

The pain is, famously, pretty terrible. “The testicles have many nerve endings, making them extremely sensitive to pain,” explains medical doctor Mahyar Maddahali AKA Dr. Max. Luckily, he has some quick-fire advice: “Taking an over-the-counter painkiller (aspirin, ibuprofen), covering the area with a cold compress; resting down and refraining from any intense activity, and using supportive undergarments to restrict movement can help the person relieve the pain faster.”

There are some more serious conditions that can arise from getting whacked in the crotch, Dr. Max notes, but there are ways to help mitigate this risk. “It’s completely unpredictable, but avoid very loose clothing, always wear your seat belt in the car, and wear jockstrap or athletic cups if you’re playing risky sports,” he says.


You’ve committed a microaggression

It was offensive. But you didn’t mean to be offensive, but it was still offensive and the wrong thing to say. If you’re called out, take the opportunity to listen and learn about how to not make the same mistake again, suggests Dr. Alisia (Giac-Thao) Tran, professor of counselling psychology at Arizona State University. 

“Oftentimes, our first inclination is to get defensive and/or explain ourselves to have our side heard,” she says. “But this is a chance to hear someone else's hurt and learn about what it's like to be them, learn about history, think about how different racial groups might have different experiences, or perhaps correct some misconceptions we may not even have known we have.”

“It can be tough not to get defensive, so sometimes it helps to think that it's not entirely about us as individuals but more about the challenging social systems we operate in,” Dr. Tran adds. “I recommend starting with an apology, acknowledging we need (and want) to learn more, then shift to listening to do so.”

Someone digs up your old, offensive tweet

The internet is forever. Luckily, our terrible decisions aren’t. Roz Sheldon is managing director at Igniyte, an online reputation management company, and has seen this situation countless times. “We advise releasing a short-concise statement only (via Twitter) reflecting on [the tweet],” she says. “Address that it was inappropriate, naive, and discriminatory, and that since the time of that tweet, you’ve achieved personal growth and no longer hold those views. Keep it short and simple, but make it sincere, and really mean what you say… Flippant, half-baked apologies will not be well received by online publics.” Take note, ukelele-strumming celebs.

Obviously, this situation is more damaging for those with a significant following or online presence. If you’re not that, and were to release an official statement to your small circle of friends, exes and guys-you-met-at-a-party-once, it might not land as well. Harriet Lerner, psychologist and author of Why Won’t You Apologise, has some advice for how to make a sincere apology one-on-one: “The formula is this: We apologise, accept responsibility, and show remorse in a clear, direct, and unambiguous way, offering restitution when it’s due and making sure there is not a repeat performance,” she says. 


And crucially: “A good apology includes the words ‘I’m sorry’ without ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ or any manner of un-doings, obfuscations, and the like. We listen without defensiveness to the hurt party’s anger and pain.”

You get busted with drugs

Don’t panic. More importantly, don’t lash out. VICE writer Simon Doherty has penned more than a few articles about drugs for us (seriously, check them out) and has learned some useful information from cops over the years. “If you get busted with drugs, you should try and prove that the police illegally searched you in the first place. Then it doesn’t matter what they found, you are still not guilty,” he says.

“If you get stopped and you have drugs, start laying the groundwork for this immediately. If the police ask if they can search you, remain polite and calm. Say that you don’t consent to a search. Immediately ask if you are under arrest. If they say no, ask if you are being detained. If it’s a no again, you are free to walk away – say nothing more and get the fuck out of there.”

“If a police officer says you are being detained for the purposes of a search, say that you will require all the paperwork after the search,” he adds. “That puts lazy officers off. At this point, the officer might try and get you to admit to possessing drugs by saying they will let you off if you surrender the stash – that’s a lie, ignore that.”


Okay, but what if it really is the worst case scenario – as in, the handcuffs start coming out? “If you actually get arrested, now is the time to shut the fuck up; say nothing at all until you see a solicitor and if the officer has broken any of the above policies and procedures (they often have) then it was an illegal search, and you can contest it in court.”

You give someone a bad gift

A situation everyone’s been in, but maybe a psychologist can help. Dr. Nicholas Epley is an author and professor of behavior science at the University of Chicago.  “Research indicates that people consistently respond more positively to honest feedback and honest communication than the person who is being honest might anticipate,” he says. In other words, don’t pretend you haven’t noticed your mate is a little less than pleased with their new Edward Cullen socks.

“I would suggest openly acknowledging that you can tell the person doesn’t like their gift, say that you were really trying to get a gift they’d like, and then ask directly what they might have hoped to get instead.  Manage the exchange so the recipient doesn’t have to deal with the hassle. You’ll feel more accomplished as a giver because you’re succeeding at what you’re actually trying to do: make the recipient happy with their gift.”

A final note on apologising for your mistakes

Here’s what’s heartening: There’s been so much research into our collective fuck-ups, it clearly isn’t a one-off experience for everyone on Earth. We all make boo boos; no matter what the situation is, the running theme seems to be that sincerity and openness to learning are more valuable than you think. 

“The strong, heartfelt apology will allow the hurt party to feel safe and soothed in the relationship again, knowing that their pain can affect us and that we care about their feelings,” says Harriet Lerner.

“We strengthen our relationships when others know that we’re capable of reflecting on our behavior, and we’ll do our best to set things right.” So, if you’re reading this to learn about how to scrape that red wine off the floor, rather than panic opening the Notes app or pulling out your decade-old ukulele, you’re probably not doing such a bad job after all.