From Lisa Belkin’s article in The NY Times Magazine, “Why Is It So Hard To Apologize Well?”, looking at the recent slew of public ‘apologies,’ from Gen. McKhyrstal to British prime minister David Cameron to Major League umpire Jim Joyce:
Apologies, says Dr. Aaron Lazare, the former chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and author of the book “On Apology,” are “the most profound of human interactions.” When used well, the words can heal humiliation — by lifting anger and guilt and allowing splintered bonds to mend. Or at least that’s what they are supposed to do. These days, they more often sound like parodies of their once-powerful selves, and instead of bringing solace, they tend to create more anger.
[Addressing the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf, BP chief executive Tony] Hayward said: “I am very, very sorry that this accident occurred, very sorry. . . . And I do believe that it’s right to investigate it fully and draw the right conclusions.” But we heard this: “I am sorry it happened, sure, but I am not saying that it was anything we could have prevented.” He also said, “This is a complex accident, caused by an unprecedented combination of failures.” In other words, it wasn’t our fault. Jennifer Robbennolt, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Illinois, calls these kinds of statements “nonapology apologies,” and they are worse, she argues, than no apology at all.
So what does a successful apology sound like? …[One] example was a decision the chief of staff at the Veteran’s Affairs medical center in Lexington, Ky., made a couple of decades ago when postmortem clinical tests showed that an elderly patient died because of a hospital error. The family would never have known but for the fact that the hospital contacted them and admitted its mistake. The family was offered an apology and also compensation and a plan of how internal procedures would change to prevent the same thing from happening to others. In short, the hospital took a risk. Apologizing in spite of the fact that it could get you in deeper legal or personal trouble seems to be a key difference between a compelling show of regret and a confounding one.
When an apology fails, two things are lost — the victims are not asked for forgiveness, nor are they given a chance to grant it. Being asked to forgive restores dignity to the injured. Granting forgiveness is a step toward moving on. A botched apology not only taints the act of apology but the ability to accept an apology as well. And that is unforgivable.
I’ve always felt that Kate Beckinsale’s hilarious attempt in The Last Days of Disco (below, starting at 1:10 mark) is the quintessential non-apology: