I’m Sorry

Midnight Oil do the Sydney Olympics 2000. Courtesy of wikipedia

Midnight Oil do the Sydney Olympics 2000. Courtesy of wikipedia

Everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes hurt other people. Maybe it’s a careless insult that injures someone’s pride, or perhaps it’s leaving a rake on the lawn for the neighbor to trip over. Either way, there is one first step to righting a wrong: apologizing. Unfortunately for many public figures or people in business, a simple expression of contrition is often bungled so badly that the “apology” is worse than the original act. Why is something so easy done so poorly most of the time?

One of the main reasons why saying “sorry” is hard is the fear of legal consequences. A bus driver who squashes a parked car during a spaced-out moment may want to apologize, but on the advice of lawyers is told to avoid making any statement that could be used in court. Thanks to so-called “apology laws” (I swear this is a real thing!), doctors in certain circumstances can voice sympathy to patients without fear of legal consequences, but even without these regulations, studies show that doctors who admit to mistakes and show contrition are LESS LIKELY to get sued for malpractice. That’s because people often sue because they are angry and want someone to be accountable in ways that go beyond the financial.

Legal issues aside, it’s easy to spot when an apology doesn’t really come from the wrongdoer. This happens all the time in sports: an athlete will do something dumb and will quickly issue a statement saying that he or she is sorry. These are usually written by communications folks and vetted by management and lawyers – and they sound like it. Baseball’s John Rocker apologized for his racist and homophobic rant in 1999 by saying, “I made several comments of which I am ashamed.” At least he didn’t end a sentence with a preposition, but who talks like that? No one. This feels like an apology written  by a committee in full damage-control mode.

The third major cause of apology failure is the dreaded non-apology, which usually includes something along the lines of, “I apologize if I offended anyone.” This is NOT an apology! It’s basically blaming people for being offended by what was done or said. It doesn’t come across as sincere, and is basically a way to avoid taking responsibility for one’s actions. Sometimes these empty statements of faux contrition start with, “I’m sorry, but…” – which pretty much negates the first part of the sentence.

So how can one issue an apology the right way? It all comes down to two words: mean it. If you’re not sorry, don’t apologize. People can smell an insincere “I’m sorry” a mile away.

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