The Apology Critics Who Want to Teach You How to Say You’re Sorry

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

On Friday, Bill Maher said the N-word on live television. By Saturday, as the public apology cycle dictates, he’d said he was sorry. “Friday nights are always my worst night of sleep because I’m up reflecting on the things I should or shouldn’t have said on my live show,” he said in a statement. “Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry.”

Though his statement does, at least, contain the word “sorry,” this struck me as a pretty paltry apology. But I don’t know if I would’ve been able to express exactly why if it weren’t for the women behind SorryWatch, a site that dissects and critiques apologies made in the public sphere. “You mention TWICE in a brief 59-word statement that the show was live. The implication is that being ‘in the moment’ explains/excuses your behavior,” they wrote on Facebook shortly after Maher released his statement. “The word ‘banter’ likewise minimizes what you said. And we are supposed to feel sorry for your sleeplessness? Basically this is about you — not about your audience. There’s no substantive reflection about WHY ‘the word was offensive.’ What word? Show us you get why that word should not have been in your mouth. And how will this word not pop out again some OTHER time when you’re live and bantering?”

SorryWatch has been around since 2012, but its origins date back to 2001, when journalist and author Susan McCarthy published a humorous piece on apologies on Salon.com. The central premise of the piece is that good apologies do not include the word if. (“‘I’m sorry I killed your frog’ is better than ‘I’m sorry if my killing your frog caused you pain,’” one line reads.) It struck a nerve.

“People would say, ‘I printed it out and I gave it to my boyfriend,’ or ‘I made my mom read it,’ to show them why the apologies they’d gotten or given weren’t good enough,” says McCarthy. A number of people came to her with stories of apologies couched in rationalizations and qualifiers, and, she says, “I realized, people really care about this.” Over the next ten years, the article resurfaced periodically, and a new wave of aggrieved readers reached out to share their apology woes. McCarthy noticed that interest in apologies, and how to make them, never really died down. So in 2012, she enlisted friend and fellow journalist Marjorie Ingall to start an apology-review website with her. They called it SorryWatch. Their first post went up in June that year, and they’ve written approximately a post a week since, for an ever-growing audience. (Ingall tells me the site now averages 15,000 views per month, though the most popular posts garner as many as eight or nine thousand views in a day.) Most, though not all, of their posts cover badly handled public apologies, which are not exactly hard to find — SorryWatch has covered apologies by United Airlines, Ariana Grande, Amtrak, and, at length, Lance Armstrong. (“I really hate that guy,” says Ingall.)

They attack bad structure first: McCarthy and Ingall will not stand for passive voice (“mistakes were made”) or irrelevant, unnecessary qualifiers (say, “all my jokes are offensive,” for example). They will not tolerate your “sorry ifs.” And they are never short on material, for the modern public apology is often replete with linguistic devices designed to evade responsibility. Anyone who’s ever read a celebrity Notes app apology on Instagram is familiar with the human tendency toward overexplanation, excuse-making, and incoherent, slightly desperate rambling — all of which serve more to save face than they do to apologize.

“Explaining the ‘why’ often turns into justifying, and that is a dangerous way to go, because there really is no justification,” says Ingall. And yet many of us frequently lean on justifications in our apologies, perhaps because we find it difficult to reconcile our actions with our conceptions of ourselves as “good” people. “Apologizing well means acknowledging that, at that moment at least, you were not good,” says Ingall. “I think that’s why people say ‘That’s not who I am.’ Which is a horrible thing to say in an apology, because either yes, it is who you are, because it came out of your mouth, or that’s not relevant, because we don’t care who you are. We care what you said, and that’s what you owe us an apology for.”

A good apology may be hard to find, but McCarthy and Ingall include them whenever they’re able. “It’s really important to us that we not be this constant unending firehose of snark,” says Ingall. “We also want to point out a good apology. Especially now, we need to feel positive and healing and hopeful about humanity, and good apologies can help you do that.” When I ask for a favorite good apology, McCarthy cites a little-publicized incident from last June, in which a man left an accusatory note on the parked car of a woman he perceived as having unfairly used a veteran’s parking spot. The woman in question, Rebecca Hayes, was a veteran, and posted an irritated pseudo-apology on Facebook in which she called the man a coward and a misogynist. The post found its way back to the man who’d posted the note. He sent Hayes an apology, which she also posted on Facebook. It’s a great apology: short, but effective — notably, it uses the phrase “I’m sorry” or “I want to apologize” three times. So is it really as simple as uttering those two (or four) little words?

Dr. Beth Polin, an assistant professor of management at Eastern Kentucky University and co-author of The Art of the Apology, defines an apology as a statement which includes one or more of six components:

• An expression of regret — this, usually, is the actual “I’m sorry.”
• An explanation (but, importantly, not a justification).
• An acknowledgment of responsibility.
• A declaration of repentance.
• An offer of repair.
• A request for forgiveness.

Once she and her colleagues developed this definition, Polin set out to assess actual, public apologies in order to see how many of them included these components, and, in the event an apology didn’t include all six, which components were used most effectively. The researchers organized a study in which subjects were told to pretend they were recruiters considering whether or not to hire a job candidate who had previously breached trust with a client. The subjects were then given a candidate’s apology and asked whether they thought they could trust him or her enough to move forward with the hiring.

“We found that an apology with all six components is much more effective at repairing trust than an apology that includes only one component, or some combination of three of the components,” says Polin. “So if you’re apologizing, if you can get all six in there, that’s going to be better than offering one to three.” But let’s assume most people aren’t willing or able to offer an apology that comprehensive — is there a “magic” component that gets the job done all on its own?

Yes and no, says Polin. When they studied the components to assess their individual effectiveness, the researchers found that acknowledging responsibility was invariably the most important component to those reading (or hearing) the apology. In other words, saying “I’m sorry” matters, but it actually matters less than saying something like “I recognize this was my fault, and I accept responsibility for it,” or, “I know what I did was wrong.” (At the bottom of the list was the request for forgiveness, which Polin surmises is because most people view the entire act of apologizing as an implicit request for forgiveness. Also, don’t make this about you!)

Lest these findings convince anyone a good apology is too much work to be worth it, Polin has also studied the various methods by which a violating entity can repair trust with the victim; the apology is just one way to do this. (There are also reparations and contractual, structural solutions, for instance.) Of all the possible ways to repair trust, apologizing is consistently found to be the cheapest, and often the most effective. “Apologies are surprisingly effective if they’re given correctly,” says Polin. “They’re easy.”

And yet, SorryWatch has been in business for more than five years. Apologizing might be easy in the abstract, but clearly, human beings can always find new and interesting ways to fail at it. As with so many scary things, though, the anticipation is often much worse than the event itself.

So here’s how to get started.

Show that you understand the impact of what you did wrong. Don’t say “Sorry if what I said hurt your feelings,” say, “I’m sorry for what I said, and I know it was hurtful.”

Don’t say “I regret” in place of “I’m sorry.” It’s not the same thing. “I regret” signifies that you wish you hadn’t gotten caught, or hadn’t gotten in trouble for what you said. It makes everything about you.

Don’t use the passive voice. There’s a reason “Mistakes were made” has become an apology cliché. It’s much better to own your actions and their consequences. (“I made mistakes, and as a result, people were hurt” — or whatever the case may be.)

Say how you’re going to make sure this doesn’t happen again. If you’ve got a recurring bad behavioral pattern with your partner, tell them you’re going to work on it in therapy (and then actually do it). If your company released a faulty product, tell us how you’re going to ensure your products are safe and functional in the future.

“And pay for the dry cleaning,” says McCarthy.

Adds Ingall, “And send the staff through sensitivity training.”

These Apology Critics Want to Teach You How to Say Sorry