Therapists Have Some Thoughts About That Viral 'Apology Dinner'

A viral thread from Reddit has everyone wondering what in the world an "Apology Dinner" is. Here's what family therapists think of the concept.
“Are people making apology dinners a thing now?" social media users are wondering.
Gilaxia via Getty Images
“Are people making apology dinners a thing now?" social media users are wondering.

It was a question that begot so many other questions: “Am I the asshole for arranging a potluck for my sister’s Apology Dinner?”

Last week, that was the question posed on r/AmItheAsshole ― a popular subreddit where people share uncomfortable or awkward scenarios from their lives and ask if they were in the wrong. It had seemingly everyone on the internet scratching their heads.

Here’s a play-by-play of what went down: In the original Reddit post, which has since been removed from the forum but still lives on Twitter, the poster explained that her mother decided to host an “Apology Dinner” for her older sister. Mom asked the poster to take care of the menu.

After realizing extended family was coming to said Apology Dinner, the OP (that’s Reddit-speak for “original poster”) decided she’d make the dinner a potluck, which she very generously ― but very unnecessarily ― explained is a gathering where “all the adult guests bring a dish, and all the dishes are shared.” (Not the explanation we were looking for here, OP!)

She then went onto say, “Of course I never asked my sister to bring any food because she was the guest of honor. Well, everyone came over and we are all excited to listen to the apology and eat.”

Unfortunately for the OP, her sister was deeply offended that her family chose to serve a lousy potluck for “her special dinner.” (Unfortunately for us, we’re still hopelessly in the dark about what the hell an Apology Dinner is.)

“My sister yelled at me that the Apology Meal should be prepared (or at least paid for) by the apologizer (my mom) in order to show proper atonement,” the Redditor said, before concluding the post with the forum’s standard question: “Am I the asshole here?”

Of course, when it came to questions, there were much bigger fish to fry, namely: What on God’s green earth is an Apology Dinner?!

On Twitter, where the post has just under 8,000 “likes,” people were as befuddled as the folks on Reddit:

“Are people making apology dinners a thing now? What even is it? Accepting an apology is private, takes time and is generally not done by insisting on a big parade but maybe that’s just me,” one person tweeted.

Others wondered if the scenario could be real.

Luckily, over on Reddit, our OP had some genuine-sounding answers to most of the follow-up questions. (Both HuffPost and the “Today” show reached out to the Redditor privately and the story seems to check out.)

The first question is, of course, what’s an Apology Dinner?

“It’s where someone apologizes to another person in front of the whole family,” she wrote.

Why invite outside family members if the offense is between your mom and sister?

“The family members can act like referees in a sense,” the OP explained. “So if a mom yells something like, ‘You just don’t want me to be happy,’ and then everyone else is like, ‘Nah, that doesn’t make any sense,’ then the mom would back down pretty fast.”

Oh, OK. But why make it a whole dinner when a group email, text, or Zoom conference call would suffice?

“The reason for a dinner is so they can not only apologize, but hash things out,” she wrote. “It’s harder to sweep things under the rug, or rush through the apology, when you know there is a whole meal to be eaten.”

This is kind of starting to make sense in a weird way? As one guy suggested, it’s like Yom Kippur with a dash of “Family Feud.” It strikes us as a little Seinfeld-ian, too ― very “Airing of Grievances” during Festivus-esque. Plus, there’s dinner!

In spite of the free dinner, some wanted nothing to do with Apology Dinners as a concept.

“I’m Sicilian; I don’t eat with betrayers and disrespecters; that’s how people get poisoned,” one woman joked on Twitter.

Others were more intrigued by the idea:

Some even brainstormed variations on a theme:

Clearly, the Apology Dinner is a polarizing topic. The conversation made us wonder: What would the foremost experts in family drama ― marriage and family therapists ― think of the concept?

Below, five of them enter the Apology Dinner discourse.

It could be potentially useful for extreme extroverts.

“This sounds like it would only be potentially useful for extreme extroverts. It would be an absolute living nightmare for introverts. Overall, it seems like something that is well-intended but could go very awry very quickly when tensions rise. I believe that a one-on-one apology is usually most valuable. If the apology seems performative, like the person is apologizing only to look good in front of the other people present, that would undermine the whole point of it. If people want to do this, at the very least it needs to be agreed upon. If there were a surprise ambush apology dinner, it would be extremely awkward and possibly hurtful for those involved.” ― Samantha Rodman Whiten, a psychologist in Potomac, Maryland

My first thought: Ugh!

“An apology dinner with family members or friends mediating? My first thought: Ugh! As a couple and family therapist, I see dysfunctional relationships where people could turn an apology dinner into a family feud. They could take sides — blaming, shaming and hurting feelings. Anyone with an ax to grind can muddy the apology waters.

As for the Yom Kippur comparison, it’s different from this. You’re supposed to apologize and ask for forgiveness if you hurt someone before Yom Kippur. The conversation should be personal, meaning private. So I don’t think an apology should be a family and friends event. Of course, it should not be a public Facebook announcement.

It would be wonderful if estranged family members, couples, and others could easily forgive one another and let go of grudges. As a therapist who helps couples and family members restore relationships, I understand the value of sometimes having an objective, nonjudgmental person mediate. I’d recommend that if a one-on-one apology is too hard for the people involved, they see a skilled therapist together, someone committed to restoring harmony.” ― Marcia Naomi Berger, a couples and family therapist in San Rafael, California, and author of “Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted”

Pass the OJ, Travis — and the apology!
FluxFactory via Getty Images
Pass the OJ, Travis — and the apology!

Why not throw in a meal to perhaps lessen some of the awkwardness and intensity?

“I can’t say I have heard of an ‘apology dinner,’ but (like most therapists), I believe in the value of apologizing. I am so pro-apology that I think it is worthwhile to apologize for some portion of any conflict, even if the other person is technically more at fault. Apologizing, as long as it is authentic and descriptive, is a gateway to intimacy, as it invites the other party to also own their part of the problem and to communicate in an emotionally mature way. Authentic apologies go deeper than one sentence and tend to invite a rich conversation. So why not throw in a meal to perhaps lessen some of the awkwardness and intensity?

That said, I would not recommend calling it an ‘apology dinner’ because I think the term is odd and will stress your guest out, [but] I don’t think it ever hurts to have an honest conversation while dining.

One thing to note: The apologizer would need to be good at apologizing here. Psychologically, a willingness to apologize reflects the possession of an emotionally mature sense of self and self-identity. It reflects an ability to balance separateness and togetherness by owning one’s part in a relational equation.

People who refuse to apologize tend to be quick to blame and well-versed in the details of how they were wronged by others. People with a strong impulse to blame tend to be terrible apologizers. They also tend to have less stable, more volatile relationships and they do not have a clear but rather a more fragmented sense of self. So maybe if someone fits that profile and they invite you to one of these ‘apology dinners,’ don’t take the bait!” ― Elisabeth LaMotte, therapist and founder of the DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center

Probably best to go easy on the wine on an apology dinner night.
10'000 Hours via Getty Images
Probably best to go easy on the wine on an apology dinner night.

Very few adults have the maturity and boundary skills to hold an apology dinner.

“Although visualizing contrite family members coming together to acknowledge mistakes and ask for forgiveness of another family member is one that would excite any family therapist, it probably is a fantasy. Very few adults have the maturity and boundary skills to hold an apology dinner, coming from a truly humble and sincere place, that would stay positive and on point. The humility it takes to be so loving and mature is in short supply, I hate to say.

When I think of how this might play out realistically, I see nervous systems getting activated followed by fight, flight and freeze responses that could lead to all sorts of family damage being done. My big concern, even with all of the positive intentions, is that most families could not do this successfully because they don’t have the relationship skills and calm nervous systems required to stay respectful and on message.

The way it might work is everyone apologizing to the person they offended and leave it at that. Make it clear there is nothing else to discuss and there are no strings attached. To be safe, instead of relying on family members to hold people in check, I would suggest a non-biased mediator. A family therapist, minister, rabbi or valued and trusted friend’s presence might encourage people to bring their best selves to the dinner table.

With that said, anytime a family comes together with a positive goal in mind, especially with an intention of healing and forgiving, I’m all for it. I have seen family meetings work well if everyone wants to be there and agrees to eliminate blame while staying positive.” ― Becky Whetstone, a marriage and family therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas and co-host of “Curl Talk: The Relationship Show” on YouTube.

Friends and family could bring their own bias to the (dinner) table.

“I know of planned interventions, disputing parties having relatives act as their mediators and dinners when dirty laundry gets aired spontaneously, but a formal apology dinner is a new concept to me. In my experience, an effective apology is an intimate experience best had between the injured party and the injuring party.

There are many parts to an apology: 1. The injuring party acknowledges and takes responsibility for the injury. 2. They express sincere remorse. 3. They offer some sort of action to remedy the injury. It sounds like the goal of the apology dinner is to facilitate these steps amongst family and friends who act as quasi counselors.

My concern about the apology dinner constellation is that It could go wrong in so many ways. Giving and receiving an apology is already such a hard, vulnerable act. Involving more people, however good-intentioned, could lead to the injuring party feeling attacked and shamed. It could lead to the injured party feeling a lack of sincerity about the apology. Also, friends and family have a really hard time being objective ― they can’t help but bring their own bias to the (dinner) table. That’s why I would recommend limiting the number of cooks in this dinner party if intervention is needed. You may want to bring in someone who can truly be objective in helping both sides.” ― Jennifer Chappell Marsh, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego

Responses have been edited for style and clarity.

Before You Go