The Art of Apology

Written on March 21, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen

AmidsTemp_imaget the ridiculous spectacle over the last two weeks occasioned by the now ex-Governor of New York‘s fondness for consorting with prostitutes, consider Eliot Spitzer’s apology for his behavior. As a public
figure, Spitzer took on the persona of Justice Incorruptible to which he added a more-than-healthy dash of self-righteousness. When his tawdry (if expensive) affair was exposed (as a result of laws that Spitzer himself had helped enact no less) the irony was so palpable you could almost feel it  washing over you like a soothing bath. Spitzer’s position was thus untenable – there was no way that he could stay on the job after the gulf between his public preaching and his private mores was exposed. As a result, Spitzer’s public apology was surprisingly honest and direct: no excuses, no qualifications, just a straightforward admission of failing. It didn’t win him any sympathy, true, but it raises the point, if indirectly, about the sorry state of the public apology. 

Saying your sorry is hard to do, apparently, judging by the astonishing frequency with which politicians, corporations, celebrities and other public figures screw them up (and I’ll provide some choice examples below). Typically when caught out, be it lying, bad behaviour, sex scandal, offensive speech, shoddy business practice, or other such transgression, the instinct is to evade responsibility. More often than not, the public apology is not about apologizing at all, that is taking ownership of a remark or action, instead it is often an exercise in excusing, ducking, or avoiding. There is a reason for this, i suspect. In our highly litigious society, admitting fault carries liability and as a result, people seem loathe to do it, even when no legal liability can accrue.

When Newt Gingirch, the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives commented last year that Spanish was the "language of the ghetto," he delivered his resulting apology in Spanish (… well a sort of Spanish). Gingrich, who said in English that Spanish was the language of the poor, said in Spanish that he never said Spanish was the language of the poor. Instead, he regretted his poor word choice. "Las palabras que elegí para expresarme no fueron las mejores." No kidding. The implication was clear: by issuing his remarks in the language he had denigrated, Gingrich was seeking to mitigate the fall-out. In fact, Gingrich was so confident that this display of his bilingual prowess would work, not only did he offer a waffle apology, he then repeated the gist of his remarks. Oh such regret!

At least Gingrich made the effort in another language. Most political apologies stem from slander or attack and typically employ a variation of the well-worn formulation "in the event I have offended." This suggests the problem really is in the mind of the offended, not in the words or actions that gave rise to the offense in the first place. This New York Times article offers some classic and memorable examples. Generally, this kind of faux-remorse is calculated, offered up with a kind of knowing wink to those who agree with the offender. We have scads and scads of politicians and media figures who have made disparaging remarks about every possible minority or identity that is not their own, followed up with an evasive "if my comments caused offence"  apology. Hint: after disparaging someone or some group, offense is a matter not of "if" but "when". 

The question of apology is particularly thorny for corporations. Corporations typically balance apologies to their customers or others affected by their malfeasance or failings with concerns over future litigation. As a result we don’t expect too much from them. This amusing example is fairly close to the truth.  When corporations are forced into apologies, the urge to shift blame can often make a bad situation worse. Consider Mattel, the toy maker which was forced to recall millions of toys with elevated levels of lead in them. When Mattel first apologised to its consumers, it placed the focus on faulty Chinese subcontractors who had betrayed the company’s trust.

… As a result of our ongoing
investigation we discovered additional affected products. Consequently,
several subcontractors are no longer manufacturing Mattel toys. We
apologize again to everyone affected and promise that we will continue
to focus on ensuring the safety and quality of our toys," said Robert
A. Eckert, chairman and chief executive officer, Mattel.

Readers may remember the ensuing outcry over supposedly shoddy Chinese production standards. Congressional hearings were called and the reputation of China’s manufacturing was challenged. This prompted outrage in China, especially after it was revealed that the bulk of Mattel’s recall was due to design flaws. So Mattel sent an official to Beijing to offer up another formal apology to the Chinese people. The result? Apologies and counter-apologies whirled together in a complete PR disaster. Fortune editor Clay Chandler offers a good overview of the mess. Needless to say, lawsuits have poured in. The art of the corporate apology is largely still a blundering one, however, the manifold examples of the non-apology gone wrong notwithstanding. Consider that only a few years ago, two Georgetown students penned a paper entitled "Companies can apologize." (OK, emphasis added.) Frankly, that’s a title that should drive us to despair.

In fact, an honest, thoughtful, heartfelt and full apology tends to go a long way to assuaging hurt feelings. A guideline recently issued by a Canadian medical advisory group urges doctors to provide patients and their families with full explanations when mistakes, a major departure form traditional practice, which in light of liability issues,  prefers silence. Even then, however, there is a limit. This article notes that

the only controversial part of the document has been over the use of the word ‘sorry.’ Some are concerned it can be interpreted as an admission of
liability. Consequently, the guidelines focus largely on expressing
regret, sympathy and sometimes using the word sorry, so long as it is
used in the right context. Words such as "negligence" and "fault" and
"failing to meet the standard of care" should be avoided, the draft
guidelines say.

There is growing evidence, however, that honest explanations and a sincere apology often help deter medical malpractice suits. Ironically, silence induced by a fear of liability may have the unintended consequence of provoking the very thing it seeks to reduce.

The positive effect of an earnest apology can also be seen in instances where corporations, governments, and politicians have fully accepted blame and expressed remorse. That such moments are accompanied by widespread astonishment and even disbelief tells us how truly rare they are. There are two high-profile instances that I can think of. First, Jet Blue issued what has been widely greeted as the "perfect" apology after it ruined weekends for millions of Americans in February of 2007.  The subsequent "apology offensive" struck the right note. The company took responsibility for its failings and promised to do better . For good measure, its stuck up a three minute video of its CEO grovelling for forgiveness amid a flurry of ers and ums.

Finally, consider the recent apology offered by Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia for the treatment of the so-called Stolen Generations. The previous Australian government of John Howard had long resisted offering up an apology for the treatment of  the continent’s aboriginal people, largely driven by fear that a direct acknowledgment of wrongdoing would provoke widespread litigation. Whether it was this delay or just general cynicism, most Australians were completely jaded. Expectations for a meaningful expression of remorse were very low. The apology delivered by Rudd (video here) was instead a knock-out. It was simple and comprehensive and it garnered widespread, worldwide attention. Indeed, the Canadian government, which is contending with the aftermath of its own shameful version of the Stolen Generation may be forced into a similar apology simply by dint of Prime Minister Rudd’s example. As expressions of wrongdoing go, the Australian government has significantly raised the bar.

These latter examples suggest that when politicians, corporations and public figures apologise they would do better to avoid trying to weasel out of responsibilty. Taking ownership for hurtful remarks or actions, for faulty practices or unacceptable levels of service may require greater courage, but it is likely to produce greater long-term reward: namely forgiveness.


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