There have been a lot of revelations lately (most of them out of Hollywood), and they’ve led to a number of apologies on the part of the offenders. You’ve probably heard most of them. Do you believe any of them?
Here’s the problem: people are not always sure whether you’re apologizing because you’re sorry for the act or because you’ve been caught. One clue is in how you apologize.
In 2009, David Letterman, a married man, broke the news that he’d had an affair with a member of his staff, a matter over which someone had tried to blackmail him. He said, “When something happens like that, if you hurt a person and it’s your responsibility, you try to fix it. And at that point, there’s only two things that can happen: either you’re going to make some progress and get it fixed, or you’re going to fall short and perhaps not get it fixed. So let me tell you, folks, I’ve got my work cut out for me.”
This struck most listeners as a sincere and realistic statement. It did not include a denial, a claim of memory loss, or an attempted diversion. It did not seem studied or self-serving, just regretful and honest. There are not very many today who think about this transgression when they think about Letterman.
Some more recent apologetic statements begin well (“These stories are true”) but then run aground on the rocks of self-aggrandizement. When an apology is about the experience of the one who is apologizing, people tend to get exasperated.
Here’s a tip: it’s not about you. Don’t make it about you.
When Paula Deen infamously made three ineffective apologies in a row about racist language she once used, she failed because she seemed to be struggling to say that it wasn’t really an offense, or shouldn’t have been taken as one, and that the experience had really taken a toll on her. “I’m sorry if anyone was offended,” she seemed to be saying. Not, “I’m sorry I did that.”
A good apology needs to be swift, be sincere, and include an element of repentance. It needs to be real. If you’re apologizing for the sake of appearance, crafting words calculated to ward off attack, people will probably see that. But if you’re apologizing because you mean it, that’s what will come across.