Error message: A look at the worst ways to say you’re sorry
In ‘the age of the apology,’ what are the worst ways to apologise, and the best? Plus, a look at some of the most iconic public apologies going back centuries.
You know that feeling you get when you’ve said a word over and over, and it suddenly loses all meaning? It’s called semantic satiation, and that’s sort of where we are with “sorry”.
We are inundated with sorries — from public figures mouthing platitudes of remorse about extramarital affairs, lies and corruption, to people apologising for things we don’t remember they said, or things other people have done.
In the past six weeks, actor Emily Blunt has apologised for fatphobic comments she made about a waitress 12 years ago. Emily Hampshire (of Schitt’s Creek) for attending a Halloween party with a friend, dressed as Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. Nana Patekar for smacking a selfie-seeking fan. US President Joe Biden apologised, again, for comments he made decades ago, about working amicably with segregationists.
Some academics — among them is Karina Schumann, a social psychologist researching conflict resolution at the University of Pittsburgh — are calling this “the age of the apology”. The sheer volume is having two key effects.
The first is obvious: what was once a rare and notable act of contrition, is becoming commonplace and rather eroded in value.
The second shift is more interesting: it’s a change in the balance of power, between public figures and the public. At few points in history has public opinion been so powerful that a figure such as a statesman, ruler, industrialist or celebrity would need to make public amends.
World War 2 marked a shift in this respect. The scale of the holocaust, once the world was confronted with it, was so horrific that the Catholic Church and various nation-states issued public apologies for their complicity (the Church, for instance, for not acting more decisively to challenge the Nazi regime).
It was meant to be a unique moment of “never again” contrition, but with the rise of the concept of “restorative justice”, the apology became a tool for taking symbolic responsibility for harms caused (even if material reparations were still not on offer). The 1990s and 2000s saw a flurry of public apologies around the world.
Pope John Paul II apologised for the Church’s involvement in slavery and religious wars. South African president FW de Klerk, for apartheid. Bill Clinton apologised for the Monica Lewinsky scandal, twice.
That last one marked a turning point, Ashraf AH Rushdy, a professor of English and African American Studies at Wesleyan University, notes in his 2018 book, After Injury: A Historical Anatomy of Forgiveness, Resentment, and Apology. Because Clinton’s apologies pertained to private acts by a public individual, rather than crimes of the state, they blurred the line between private and public.
That demarcation was already crumbling amid the rise of celebrity news and reality TV, and would soon be obliterated by social media. Today, everything is public. And thanks to social- media algorithms that incentivise online pile-ons, every act of transgression requires the performance of a public apology.
What, me sorry?
What is this doing to the nature and perceived value of the apology itself? An interesting project seeking to answer that question is the digital archive SorryWatch. Started by writers Susan McCarthy and Marjorie Ingall in 2012, it tracks and analyses apologies in the news.
They all seem to borrow from a lexicon of stock phrases designed to dodge responsibility while sounding like one is accepting it. Phrases such as “Sorry if you were offended”, “I have daughters too”, “This is not who I am” and “I am not a perfect person”.
Rather than acting as a first step towards healing, and a re-affirmation of the power of public accountability, such expressions prioritise self-preservation, the manipulation of perspective, and erasure of public memory.
The fact that so few of these public apologies are followed by real steps to make amends or change behaviour contributes to the cynicism with which they are received. But experts point out there might be a deeper problem, a structural flaw in our current model of social-media-fuelled “accountability culture”.
A 2017 study by Australian researchers TG Okimoto, Michael Wenzel and Matthew J Hornsey, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggests that the more apologies we receive from public figures, the less likely we are to perceive them as sincere and worthy of forgiveness. They attribute this to what is called the “normative dilution” effect: the more a behaviour is the expected norm, the less impact it has.
Like the dentist handing over a toffee after he’s poked around in one’s mouth for an hour: you perk up the first time, but by the hundredth time, it’s no longer as mollifying.
Which is not to say that a public apology has no value. It has moral value, especially to the person apologising, a fact that’s easy to forget. Even the insincere public apology offers a starting point for change; it works to set new limits on what is socially and politically acceptable.
One of the oldest apologies in the SorryWatch archive comes from a judge named Samuel Sewall, one of nine who condemned the alleged witches of Salem in 1692. Five years later, he stood up in Boston’s Old South Church as a priest read out his statement. He was immediately ostracised by high society, but his biographer Richard Francis would later write that his apology transformed him, and his community. Sewall would go on to criticise the American colonists’ treatment of slaves and indigenous people. The date of his apology would become an official fast day in Massachusetts. A painting titled Dawn of Tolerance in Massachusetts, depicting Sewall’s apology, now hangs in the State House of Representatives.
The bad apology, meanwhile, can serve an important purpose too: that of showing others what not to do. On SorryWatch, for instance, McCarthy and Ingall have gradually shifted their focus away from sardonic takedowns of public apologies to examinations of what makes a good personal one. In their 2023 book Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies, they draw on research in psychology, sociology and law to explore the power of a good apology, and its ability to repair relationships and heal wounds.
“It takes valour to apologise to those with less status and power than you, especially when no one’s making you do it,” they write. “Apologising well shows wisdom and honor… (and) a good apology can improve the lives and spirits of everyone it touches.”
BOX: Six-and-a-half steps to the perfect apology
#1: Say you’re sorry.
#2: For what you did.
#3: Show you understand why it was bad.
#4: Only explain if you need to; don’t make excuses.
#5: Say why it won’t happen again.
#6: Offer to make up for it.