I’ve recently heard two attempts at apology in the major media. The first was from Sen. Dick Durbin for his comments connecting the treatment of Muslims held prisoner by the US with the actions of the Khmer Rouge, the Nazis, and the Gulags of Stalin. The second was from Beth Holloway Twitty, mother of the young woman missing in Aruba for her comments complaining about how her daughters case was being handled. Each of them used a very similar phrase, to the effect of “I’m sorry if my comments were hurtful to anybody – this was not my intention.”
These make for very sad attempts at apology, because they manage to avoid taking any responsibility for what was said, admitting that anything about it was wrong, or retracting any such wrongness. A less pleasant sounding paraphrase would be “I’m sorry you’re such a wimp that you can’t handle what I have to say.” However, this wouldn’t have the desired effect of getting people to leave the “apologizer” alone, so the nicer sounding version is used.
To help improve the quality of future public apologies, I’ve put together some ideas on how to apologize.
First, don’t apologize if you think you were right in what you said and how you said it. Unsincere apology is frankly insulting, so don’t do it.
Next, if you do think that something in what you said or how you said it was wrong, admit it. Phrases like “I was wrong to say X” are much more important than “I’m sorry” is to an apology.
To actually be accountable, clarify what was wrong about what you did or how you did it. This will indicate that you actually understand why you were wrong, and that you’re not just saying something to get people off your back.
Further, indicate what you’re going to do to see to it that this doesn’t happen again. And then follow through and do it. Nobody else can verify if you really feel sad about doing something, but following a plan and seeing to it that it doesn’t happen again shows a practical remorse that is verifiable. Saying “I’m sorry” and then doing it again makes it very clear that “I’m sorry” doesn’t mean very much.
For those in relationships, avoid token gifts like flowers and candy during an apology. Unless they are accompanied by follow-through and change, they become an attempt to bribe away guilt for things that will happen again.
So, for Sen. Durbin, the thing to be saying would be something like “I’m sorry that I tarnished the reputations of Americans by connecting their actions with the actions of the most despicable regimes of our century. My shock at what I saw attributed to them overwhelmed my reason, and I said things that I shouldn’t have said – I was wrong to use my position to undermine the legitimacy of those fighting to protect us. I have learned that I need to discuss these things with cooler heads when I am upset before I speak on the floor of the Senate so I can avoid such indecorous situations in the future.”
For Mrs. Twitty, it would be something like “I’m sorry that I cast aspersions on the people and the justice system of Aruba. Contrary to what I implied, I know that they have worked tirelessly to help my family in this time of crisis, and have served above and beyond any call of duty to help uncover what has happened to my daughter. As you can well imagine, the stress of this situation remaining unresolved has been emotionally and physically exhausting, and I responded in a moment of exhaustion and despair by lashing out at those who have been helping us the most. I was wrong to do so. I appreciate greatly their sacrifice on my behalf, and, while I have concerns about the details of how this situation is handled and may disagree with certain steps of that process, I never want to impugn the honor and decency of these wonderful people like this again. “
Few things can make a person look more honorable than a sincere apology followed up by efforts to change. Half-hearted apologies like we actually heard speak less well of those who give them.