How to Apologize

Peter Wood

Apologies are in order. Every week seems to provide a new crop of public figures apologizing for a poor choice of words, a regrettable action, or an effort to deceive. The manager of the Miami Marlins, Ozzie Guillen, apologized twice for telling Time magazine, “I love Fidel Castro.” His baseball team apologized:

The Marlins acknowledge the seriousness of the comments attributed to Guillen. The pain and the suffering caused by Fidel Castro cannot be minimized, especially in a community filled with victims of the dictatorship.

And Guillen later added:

I’m here on my knees, apologizing to all the Latin American communities.

Democratic political consultant Hilary Rosen apologized for saying on CNN that Ann Romney has no business discussing the U.S. economy because she “hasn’t worked a day in her life.” Rosen initially refused to apologize but after public rebukes from both Michelle Obama and the president, she offered a sort-of apology:

I apologize to Ann Romney and anyone else who was offended. Let’s declare peace in this phony war and go back to focus on the substance.

Guillen and Rosen are far from alone in bowing their heads to public opprobrium. We have so many apology stories, one following another, it is hard to keep track of who has apologized and who has stonewalled.

Rush Limbaugh apologized on March 3, for calling Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut.” Bill Maher declined to apologize to Sarah Palin and several other conservative women for sexual epithets he had applied to them. Instead he went to the op-ed pages of the New York Times on March 21, and granted himself amnesty in “Please Stop Apologizing.” Maher argued that most apologies are phony and we would be better off without them:

Let’s have an amnesty—from the left and the right—on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront. Let’s make this Sunday the National Day of No Outrage. One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone did or said and pretend you can barely continue functioning until they apologize.

If that doesn’t work, what about this: If you see or hear something you don’t like in the media, just go on with your life. Turn the page or flip the dial or pick up your roll of quarters and leave the booth.

At the other end of the scale is Rupert Murdoch’s apology last July for the phone-hacking scandal in Britain. He published under the bold headline, “We are sorry,” a declaration that “We are sorry for the serious wrongdoing that occurred.” And concluded, “I realise that simply apologising is not enough.” Then there is NBC’s apology, issued April 3, for editing a tape of George Zimmerman’s telephone conservation with a police dispatcher to make it seem as if Zimmerman had focused on the race of Trayvon Martin. NBC declared:

During our investigation it became evident that there was an error made in the production process that we deeply regret. We will be taking the necessary steps to prevent this from happening in the future and apologize to our viewers.

While I culled these examples from the national (and international) scene, higher education has its own semesterly harvest of apologetic plagiarists, miscreant coaches, data-deficient researchers, and blundering presidents. A teaching assistant mocks her students on Facebook and apologizes. A professor blogs that excessive numbers of transfer students are damaging his university—and apologizes.

Sooner or later we all have something to apologize for. Because we live in an age of apology, you’d think we would know pretty well how to make amends. But that seldom seems the case. Ozzie Guillen’s melodramatic self-abasement isn’t very convincing. Hilary Rosen’s jaw-clenched burst of resentment is even less so. Limbaugh’s exculpates himself for intent and limits his apology “to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.” Maher’s boldly rejects apology in favor of cynicism. Murdoch gets the words right but not the follow-through. After the apology, the cover-up continued. And NBC’s apology appears to be simply a brick in a wall of obfuscation. “Deeply regretting” while minimizing the wrong and hiding the details doesn’t breathe much life into regret.

So how should we apologize? Let’s start with something more basic.


“Never confess! Never, never!” That’s Marlow about midway in Joseph Conrad’s 1913 novel, Chance. Marlow is attempting to draw a confidence out of a young woman who has written a too-revealing letter to a friend and, as she hesitates, he reflects on what a bad idea it is to divulge your secrets:

She did not answer me for a time, and as I waited I thought that there’s nothing like a confession to make one look mad; and that of all confessions a written one is the most detrimental all round. Never confess! Never, never! […] You seek sympathy, and all you get is the most evanescent sense of relief—if you get that much.

“Never confess!’ is probably the most famous line in Chance but it is more an expression of Marlow’s emotions than his principles. The man he says this to observes, “I had seldom seen Marlow so vehement, so pessimistic, so earnestly cynical before.” And Conrad’s novels as a whole stand as a refutation. They are centrally about crucial missteps, regrets, confessions, and atonements. Not that confession is ever easy.

But we seem to live in a time when Marlow’s expostulation has become a rule of thumb. Is this the work of PR consultants? The fear of lawsuits? Maybe, but people caught out in public lies, misbehavior, or offensive speech these days typically look for ways to summon public forgiveness without actually confessing to having done anything wrong. Or by confessing with so many qualifiers that the original point is snowed under in heaps of exculpatory evasions.

Without genuine confession, there can be no real apology. In its absence, the appeal to the public is for complicity: let’s get through this ordeal, says the miscreant, so we can all get back to our regular lives. The pseudo-apology perhaps suits our cultural moment. It combines postmodern uncertainty–who is to say what’s wrong?—with traditional American pragmatism. “O.K. That’s done. Now let’s play ball!” Or as Hilary Rosen put it, “Let’s declare peace in this phony war and go back to focus on the substance.”

Still, it is not a very satisfactory arrangement. There’s a Conradian part in all of us that wants to confess and there is an unanswered public need for something more compelling than, “Sorry about that.” Marlow, in his cynical moment, tells us why we shouldn’t bother: “You seek sympathy, and all you get is the most evanescent sense of relief—if you get that much.” But he is wrong. You get a chance. What you get is a chance to earn some self-respect.

Practical Counsel and Apology Scholarship

All of us make mistakes; all of us have occasion to apologize. But we are increasingly without compelling examples of how to do it. There is, in fact, a small segment of the self-help industry that offers advice. Attorney Lauren Bloom in The Art of the Apology (2008) teaches “how to apologize effectively to practically anyone.” Physician Aaron Lazere in On Apology (2005) says apologies can “heal humiliations, free the mind from deep-seated guilt, [and] remove the desire for vengeance.” And Pastor Gary Chapman in The Five Languages of Apology (2008) says we “need to learn the ‘language’ of the person you are apologizing to.”

There are also books with more jaundiced views of apologizing. A few years ago I reviewed Susan Wise Bauer’s The Art of the Public Grovel (2008) which deals with how American public figures from Aimee Sample McPherson to Bill Clinton and Cardinal Law handled their sexual scandals. Political scientist Melissa Nobles in The Politics of Official Apologies (2008) deals with official state apologies to indigenous peoples in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, and focuses on the tension between “nation building elites” and minorities that “refuse to assimilate.” And professor of philosophy Nick Smith in I Was Wrong (2008) hits the Marlow-esque note dead on: he looks for the meanings that are absent in professed apologies and (in the publisher’s words) “warns of the dangers of collective acts of contrition that allow individual wrongdoers to obscure their personal blame.”

Though it might be prudent for all potential apologizers to plan ahead by mastering this literature, I have some simple suggestions to keep on hand.

The ABC’s of Apology

Own it. “I shot the sheriff,” not ‘I bear some responsibility in the recent death in tragic circumstances of a local law enforcement officer.”

Precision counts. “I am not the original author of substantial portions of my dissertation. I copied from the published works of Paul Tillich and from the unpublished dissertation of Jack Boozer.” Not, “it has been brought to my attention that there are similarities between passages of my dissertation and the work of other writers, and that I may have failed adequately to cite some of the sources I consulted in my research.”

But not too much precision. Excessive detail is a form of evasion. The detail may well matter, but it should be provided separately from the apology. “I have appended a list of places in my book where I misappropriated the words of others, along with a list of the original sources.”

No conditional apologies. “I apologize to my students if I upset them,” is not an apology. It implies that the students had no good reason to be upset, and the apologizer is grudgingly going through the motions. Conditional apologies often announce themselves with conditional clauses, but not always. When Northwestern University professor J. Michael Bailey apologized for staging a live sex act for students to watch after class on February 21, 2011, he regretted “upsetting so many people in this particular manner.” This was an artful non-apology, in which the condition wasn’t stated outright but was plainly on the order of, ‘I’m sorry people were upset but I didn’t do anything wrong.’ The point was underscored when he added:

During a time of financial crisis, war, and global warming, this story has been a top news story for more than two days. That this is so reveals a stark difference of opinion between people like me, who see absolutely no harm in what happened, and those who believe that it was profoundly wrong.

Don’t cringe. When Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer was criticized by a campus gay group, Scarlet and Gay, for making under-performing players wear lavender shirts, he abjectly apologized:

Thank you for sharing your concerns regarding the purple mesh pullovers. The use of purple was never intended to be used to offend anyone, but since it has, we have taken steps to change the color. Please accept our sincere apologies. We have core values of respect and honor within our program, and these are two principles that are central to my personal life, my coaching and to Ohio State and its athletics programs. Bias has absolutely no role in how we think or operate.

If indeed the “mesh pullovers” were not intended to offend, Coach Meyer could have put an end to the fuss by quietly retiring them, rather than invoking respect, honor, and principled opposition to bias. The over-the-top apology for an inadvertent (and perhaps imaginary) offense dilutes the whole idea of apologizing.

Check sarcasm. A surprising number of would-be apologists end up mocking the people they pretend to be apologizing to. Perhaps the epitome of this is the line in the 2004 movie Mean Girls: “Alyssa, I’m sorry I called you a gap-toothed bitchIt’s not your fault that you are so gap-toothed.” Any apology that implies oversensitivity on the part of the recipient is sarcastic.

Don’t squander. We all know people who apologize constantly for incidental errors and for matters beyond their control. Don’t apologize for the weather.

XYZ’s of Apology

The idea of apology is rooted in personal responsibility for one’s actions. You can’t really apologize for acts you didn’t commit, though increasingly people try to. Likewise, apologies can be coerced from people, in which case the words probably matter less than the public spectacle of someone bowing to authority. In February, a man in Ohio was ordered by a judge to post a court-approved apology for 30 days on Facebook to his ex-wife or go to jail for 60 days. The sincerity of the apology surely is a matter of indifference to the court. This was about teaching a lesson to man who had defied a court order.

Some of the wrongs in the world are committed by or in the name of collective entities. Rupert Murdoch felt the need to apologize on behalf of his newspaper, The News of the World. NBC has been half-apologizing for corporate actions by blaming (and dismissing) an unnamed producer. BP Oil has been pumping millions of gallons of apologies ever since the Gulf oil spill.

Apologies of this sort are suspect in two ways: the apologist lacks moral standing and the recipient of the apology is an artificial aggregate. An apology made on behalf of an organization, a community, or a category of people can work only if it is grounded in a powerfully felt sense of commonality. When that sense is not felt, the apology rings hollow. Rupert Murdoch may himself feel deep sorrow about his employees hacking phones and invading people’s privacy, but he speaks in a limited way for the employees who actually committed the acts and others who knew about them and did nothing. The same applies to NBC executives attempting to smooth over an egregious bit of editing. And the same applies to college and university presidents when called on to make amends for the misdeeds of students, faculty members, or coaches.

Likewise apologies to “the community” are suspect. “I apologize to all those who were hurt by my inconsiderate action” does nothing, though it is arguably better than “I’m glad I did it.” An apology should be directed to those who were injured, though it is true that “the community” in a broad sense is injured as well. “I apologize to the boys—now young men—who became the victims of a sexual predator who I was in a position to stop,” carries more weight than “I apologize for the embarrassment I’ve caused a university that I love.”

Apologies to the dead seem especially futile. We can atone for our acts; make restitution to survivors; commemorate, pray, and honor the dead. But the apology comes too late.

Similarly, I am skeptical of apologies to categories of people as opposed to individuals. They may on occasion be justified because of the difficulty of identifying the individuals who were directly harmed, but the categorical apology rains on all alike and contains its own subtle injuries to the principle of justice.

Apologies have numerous counterfeits. It is best to keep in mind that people have an excellent sense of whether an apology is genuine and can spot the self-serving deceits almost as fast as they can be spoken. We need to allow that some pro-forma apologies and even some plainly hypocritical ones are a necessary social lubricant. A child needs to learn how and when to apologize even if his heart isn’t yet in it, so he can apologize effectively when it is. Our emotions need to be trained—which is much the point of my book, A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now. Apology is, ideally, how we remove the sting.

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