We are living in the Age of Sorry.
It’s hard to remember a time when so many breathless apologies stirred the air — from celebrities to companies, and even Uncle Ted, who will never, ever drink and Facebook status update again.
And what's everyone so sorry about? Well, the usual transgressions: poor decisions, wrong-headed marketing ploys, and other more serious misdeeds that require more than a mere apology.
Only, of course, these misdeeds are wildly amplified on social media and spread to a potentially vast audience — all clamoring for an apology. The trouble is that just as our misdeeds find a wide audience, so do the apologies. And, as such, they'd better be good.
Because nothing fires up an aggrieved party quite like a misfired apology.
The bad apologies we can't shake
Remember when Kanye West tweeted his regrets for snatching the mic from Taylor Swift at the 2009 Grammys?
"With the help of strong will, a lack of (empathy), a lil alcohol and extremely distasteful & bad timing ... I became George Bush over night," he posted.
He put the blame squarely on booze, and bad timing, while using the occasion to make a cheap joke about a former president.
Was it any surprise the "apology" moved few hearts, but was instead lampooned as a wild rant and further evidence of the star’s "unhinged" behavior?
Nor should it be a surprise that West would later find himself tweeting a string of similar "apologies" to others he had slighted.
His sorries don’t seem to stick.
Companies also show an alarming degree of tone deafness in their mea culpas. Remember the Volkswagen fiasco? The German automaker was caught rigging cars with devices that cheated emissions tests.
Stocks plummeted. Executives fled. An apology was issued, along with a full-page ad in scores of newspapers. But Volkswagen couldn’t resist using some of that apology space to sell more cars — offering a $500 gift card toward the purchase of a new Volkswagen, and three years of roadside assistance.
In the face of such wholesale deceit, it was widely seen as an insult to customers. The apology itself was branded "completely ineffective."
Why is it so hard to say sorry?
"Apologizing feels uncomfortable and risky," notes an essay in Harvard Business Review. "There’s a loss of power or face involved — it rearranges the status hierarchy and makes us beholden, at least temporarily, to the other party. That doesn’t feel good. So it’s no wonder people try to avoid dwelling on or drawing attention to mistakes and that when one is pointed out, they get defensive, arguing their side of the story and shifting blame to others."
But nothing is more critical to an apology than a straight-up, unwavering, "I’m sorry."
Writing in Psychology Today, psychologist and author Guy Winch puts those words at the top of his ingredient list for a successful apology.
And, surprisingly, with all the mea culpas in circulation, few seem to get even that right.
The speed of that sorry is also critical, notes marital therapist Guy Grenier. Although Grenier is referring to conflict between spouses, the rule applies to just about any misdeed. The longer you wait, he tells Chatelaine, the wider the divide grows.
Then there’s the prickly problem of communicating clearly what the apology is for — a detail Volkswagen drove roughshod in its public admission. The company was sharply criticized for its lack of candor.
However, some apologies are very good. Recently, a Nobel Prize winner was praised when she issued a humble apology after a paper of hers was retracted.
“It is painful to admit, but important to do so. I apologize to all. I was a bit busy when this was submitted, and did not do my job well,” Dr. Frances Arnold, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2018, tweeted.
It is painful to admit, but important to do so. I apologize to all. I was a bit busy when this was submitted, and did not do my job well. https://t.co/gJDU0pzlN8— Frances Arnold (@francesarnold) January 2, 2020
Many people thanked her for her honesty and the way she handled the situation.
Can I please express my respect for you bringing this to everyone's attention. This shows that anyone can make an honest mistake and acting to correct that is the best response. Thank you— Dominique Hoogland 👩🔬 (@HooglandScience) January 2, 2020
This is inspirational, thank you for the public mea culpa. It is so important for us all to emulate this, by being honest and reproducible rather than only striving to be first.— Ryan Scott Gray (@slewzeus) January 3, 2020
The key is listening
There’s more to a good sorry than being speedy and straight-forward. A non-backfiring apology must convey the sense that a company or individual understands why everyone is so upset. In other words, it has to show that the apologizer has listened and even learned from the misdeed.
"The part we’re all really good at when it comes to communication is the talking part, and the part we really generally suck at is the listening part," Mike Su of the digital media brand Mitú writes in Fast Company. "And as any marriage counselor will tell you, one great hack to help people know that you’re listening to what someone is saying is if you’re able to repeat back to someone what they’re saying. This doesn’t mean you have to agree, but this simple act of acknowledgement goes a long way when you’re trying to communicate."
Admitting that we’re wrong, understanding the nature of that wrong and showing that we’re willing to listen — none of these steps are easy. But they’re the hallmarks of a sincere apology, the kind that stands a chance of being accepted, rather than inflaming more outrage.
(Sorry it took so long to get to that conclusion. We understand this is a long article. We’ll try to get to the point sooner next time.)
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was written in January 2018.