The Art of the Apology
By Diana Maliszewski
Practically everything is media, and that includes apologies.
An apology is defined as “a regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure” (www.dictionary.com).
Traditional apologies involve the giver and the receiver of the apology, unless you include the adult that might be forcing an apology between children, like a parent or teacher insisting that the transgressor “say sorry”. When apologies occur in more public spheres, the audience includes many more ears than just those to whom the apology should be directed. There may also be personal or legal ramifications to an apology – is there an admission of guilt? How much responsibility does the person issuing the apology take on, especially if the speaker is providing the apology on behalf of a group, organization, or country?
What makes a good apology? A lot depends on the source and situation.
This manners columnist suggests that there are 7 steps to a good apology. (See the original article at https://www.mannersmentor.com/gracious-living/how-to-apologize-the-7-steps-of-a-sincere-apology)
- Ask for permission to apologize.
- Let them know that you realize you hurt them.
- Tell them how you plan to right the situation.
- Let them know that inherent in your apology is a promise that you won’t do what you did again.
- After you’ve talked through things, formally ask them for forgiveness.
- Consider following up with a hand-written note.
- Now it’s time for both people to go forth and live out their promises
Compare that list to this one about “apologizing professionally”, taken from https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/how-to-apologize.htm
- Express remorse
- Admit responsibility
- Make amends
- Promise that it won’t happen again
A psychologist writing for Psychology Today took the opposite approach and listed what a true apology should and should not have. Her list of 9 items (found at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-dance-connection/201409/the-9-rules-true-apologies) include:
- Do not include the word “but”
- Keep the focus on your actions and not the other person’s response
- Do not overdo it
- Do not get caught up on blaming or “who started it”
- Back the apology up with corrective action
- Do your best to avoid a repeat performance
- Do not silence the other person with the apology
- Do not offer it if it makes you feel better but the recipient feels worse
- Recognize when “I’m sorry” is not enough
Unfortunately, we have many examples of poor apologies. A quick search unearthed this entertainment article offering the “best (or worst) celebrity apologies” from 2014 (see https://www.eonline.com/news/547754/the-17-best-or-worst-celebrity-apologies-where-does-jonah-hill-rank) and a more recent compilation of “powerful people” giving “pathetic apologies” (see https://theestablishment.co/7-times-powerful-people-gave-pathetic-apologies-for-their-bad-behavior-8b45f7b77ed0/) Audiences negotiate meaning in the media and what many of these “substandard apologies” have in common relate to their ideological messages – the people apologizing don’t “sound sorry” or are too focused on making excuses for themselves. Does the person apologizing give off an “honest vibe”? Or does the apology seem like it was written by a Public Relations firm? There’s also the non-verbal cues that are examined. Does the person apologizing “look sorry”? If the person apologizing cries, does that support the legitimacy of the apology or undermine it? Does the person being apologized to have to accept the apology for it to be acceptable?
Examining apologies with a media literacy lens can make for a fascinating discussion around power and platforms, message intent, reception, and construction. We’ll end this article with a recent, Canadian example of an unexpected apology, as described by the recipient.