By Ray Williams
November 15 2021
On a daily basis now, we see celebrities, politicians and business leaders and heads of state not just refusing to apologize and take responsibility for actions they or their organizations have taken, but giving non-apologies — the appearance of an apology.
People also complain about how the non-apology can spread in a work environment or in personal relationships.
The incidence of non-apologies are spreading for verbal, non-verbal and ethical offenses perhaps as a growing bi-product of the political divisions in America, and the health and social and economic challenges it faces.
Yet, research has shown us that proper apologies can have a therapeutic and healing impact on divisions and conflict in society as I point out in my article in “How Apologies are the Glue That Holds Us Together.”
Editors at Oxford Dictionaries recently added an entry for “non-apology,” defining it as a statement that takes the form of an apology but doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge responsibility or regret. Oxford also added an entry for “apology tour,” a series of public appearances by a well-known figure to express regret over a wrongdoing.
Non-apologies are frequently an avoidance of personal responsibility is often a form of gaslighting. The non-apology often puts the blame on the victims or critics of the perpetrator, because the message is “If anyone is stupid or too insensitive to be offended by what I did, then I guess I apologize, but only because their unreasonableness forces me to do so to make the problem go away.” This illustrates a lack of empathy, insincerity and a refusal to accept personal responsibility for their own acts. Language is also manipulated in a non-apology to give the appearance of an apology.
A non-apology occurs when a person is compelled to express regret while—in actuality—accepting no blame or responsibility for their actions. In a non-apology, the person at fault shows no real remorse for the wrongdoing and, instead, makes excuses and makes themselves appear to be a victim. In a non-apology, the offending actions are not clearly described and are instead only hinted at. A non-apology is damage control at its worst.
An apology, according to Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman, is “a splitting of the self into a blameworthy part and a part that stands back and sympathizes with the blame giving.” Goffman goes on to say that after an offense has occurred, the job of the person apologizing is to show an understanding of the norm violated and the harm done.
What this means in practice is that offenders must identify what they did wrong and then demonstrate that they take responsibility for that wrong, that they accept the blame. To be a true apology this has to be accompanied with some sincerity and with a sense of how the offender will act differently in the future.
The death of the public apology has been long in the making. It fits an approach best exemplified by Nathan Brittles, a character played by actor John Wayne in the John Ford Western “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” The 1949 film popularized the expression “Never apologize – it’s a sign of weakness,” which has become the slogan of a type of public toughness over the past half-century.
The Most Common Forms of a Non-Apology
- “I want to apologize.” It’s no more an apology than “I want to lose weight” is a loss of weight. It implies that the actual apology will occur sometime in the future, not actually take place in the present.
- “I am sorry that you . . .”. Examples: “I’m sorry you were offended,” “I’m sorry you feel hurt,” “I’m sorry you think I did something wrong,” “I’m sorry your feelings are hurt.” This is a phrase or form of non-apology that gaslighters use so often. It’s a way to emotionally abuse another person and victim-blame them for basically having feelings. This type of fake apology makes the receiver feel like their emotions aren’t valid and that they’re the one with a problem. This is a blame-shifting apology. It is no apology at all. Rather, it puts the onus on the victim as the problem, not the perpetrator. These imply that the inured party may be too sensitive, and the problem is their perception of what happened.
- “I am sorry if . . .” Examples: ““I apologize if anyone was offended,” “I am sorry if I did anything wrong,” “I’m sorry if you took it that way,” “I’m sorry if you were offended.” This is a conditional apology. It falls short of a full apology by suggesting only that something might have happened. According to John Kador in Effective Apology, “Adding the word if or any other conditional modifier to an apology makes it a non-apology.” A 2014 ifpology was made by CNN‘s Don Lemon, who said, “If my question to [Joan Tarshis] struck anyone as offensive, I am sorry, as that certainly was not my intention.” Attorney and business ethics expert Lauren Bloom, author of The Art of the Apology, mentions the “if apology” as a favorite of politicians, with lines such as “I apologize if I offended anyone”.
- “I am sorry but . . .” This excuse-making apologydoes nothing to heal the wounds caused. Examples: “I am sorry, but most other people wouldn’t have overreacted like you did,” “I am sorry, but other people thought it was funny,” “ I am sorry, but you started it,” “I am sorry, but there was truth to what I said.” “I am sorry but, you can’t expect perfection.”
- “I was just . . .” This is a justifying non-apology.It seeks to argue that hurtful behavior was okay because it was harmless or for a good cause. Examples: “I was just kidding,” “I was just trying to help,” “I was only trying to calm you down,” “I was trying to get you see the other side,” and the famous “I was just playing devil’s advocate.”
- “I regret . . .” This sidestepping apologyequates regret with apologizing. They are not the same thing. There is no acceptance of responsibility by the transgressor. Examples: “I regret you felt upset,” “I regret that mistakes were made.”
- “I’m sorry for what I said; that doesn’t reflect who I really am.” This does not portray the repentance needed for an authentic apology. It excuses the perpetrator, by giving an excuse for the transgression and reminding the victim that the perpetrator is really someone else.
- “Mistakes were made.” The expression “mistakes were made” is commonly used as a rhetorical device, whereby a speaker acknowledges a situation was handled poorly or inappropriately but seeks to evade any direct admission or accusation of responsibility by using the passive voice. The acknowledgement of “mistakes” is framed in an abstract sense with no direct reference to who made the mistakes. The speaker neither accepts personal responsibility nor accuses anyone else. The word “mistakes” also does not imply intent. The New York Times has called the phrase a “classic Washington linguistic construct”. William Safire has defined the phrase as “[a] passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it”.
- “I’m suffering for the mistake I made.” Examples: “I’ve really been upset over what I did,” or “I’m losing sleep over this.” “I called you an idiot but I’ve been under a lot of stress/have too much going on.” This non-apology puts the focus on the transgressor’s well-being and asks the offended party to show compassion and caring for the transgressor.
- “Everybody makes mistakes, and I’m not perfect.” This is not an apology. It avoids personal responsibility by projecting the responsibility onto others. It criticizes the victim by accusing them of wanting the perpetrator to be perfect.
- “I hope you won’t hold this against me.” This is not an apology. It’s passive aggressive at best and aggressive at the worst because it implies some retribution or punishment of the injured party.
- “I’m sorry but there are two sides to this….” Examples: “I’m sorry, but I’m not the only one to blame here.” It takes two to tango!” “ I’m sorry, but I’m not the only one responsible”.” I’m sorry, but you played a part in this too!” These are not an apologies. This still shifts the blame back onto the receiver and refuses to even try and understand their emotions and feelings. It’s like they’re trying to invalidate both sides of the argument so that no one is right. Because if they feel like they’re not winning, they’ll make darn sure that everyone else loses too.
- “I Was Just…” Examples: “I was just trying to be helpful.” “I was just trying to get you to calm down.” “ I was just kidding! God, can’t you take a joke?” “I was just trying to get you to see my side!” This type of justifying non-apology argues that what they were doing was okay! They always have their reasons and refuse to listen to the other person’s needs because they don’t want to confront the fact that they did anything incorrect.
Examples of Non-Apologies By Celebrities, and Political and Business Leaders
- NFL Star Aaron Rodgers. In his second interview since the revelation that he has not been vaccinated, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn’t come out and admit that he was lying when he said, “Yeah,” when asked if he was vaccinated, Rodgers did acknowledge that by saying he was “immunized” he made a misleading statement. “I made some comments that people might have felt were misleading. And to anybody who felt misled by those comments, I take full responsibility for those comments,” Rodgers said. But while Rodgers said he was taking “full responsibility,” he did the non-apology by saying he apologized only to those who “felt misled,” as if it was just their feeling, and not his own actions, that he was apologizing for. The reality is, people felt misled because Rodgers lied to them about his vaccination status. His non-apology was self-serving.
- Justin Timberlake. The 2004 Super Bowl halftime show gave us one of the most notorious moments in TV history. While performing a duet, Justin Timberlake ripped off part of Janet Jackson’s outfit and accidentally exposed one of her breasts on live TV. He addressed the incident when he won an award at the Grammys later that year, but it was your typical “I’m sorry if you were offended” non-apology.
- Kevin Spacey. Of all the celebrities who were accused during the height of the Me Too movement, Kevin Spacey was perhaps the one who shocked people the most. The actor was disgraced after numerous accusations were made against him. An accusation made by actor Anthony Rapp was particularly troubling, as he said that Spacey had been inappropriate with him when he was only 14 years old. Spacey’s apology was criticized for being tone-deaf and trying to distract from the incident by opening up about his sexuality. In addition to that written apology, he released a video called ‘Let Me Be Frank’ where he apologized again while acting as Frank Underwood, his famous ‘House of Cards’ character. In other words it was Frank Underwood that had made the transgression not Spacey, and he was apologizing for Underwood.
- Louis C.K. Louis C.K. was one of the most popular comedians in the world thanks to his highly successful stand-up shows and F.X. comedy series ‘Louis.’ This all changed when he faced allegations of sexual misconduct in 2017. After multiple women came forward, he admitted to his actions. His long apology letter was widely criticized because it contained unnecessarily graphic statements about the incidents and didn’t offer a direct apology.
- Ingrid Newkirk of PETA. After an ad campaign comparing animal cruelty today to the Holocaust, Newkirk wrotea statement of “apology” where there was about one paragraph of apology and the rest was basically, “I KNOW LOTS OF JEWS THAT WERE FINE WITH IT!” to the point where the main message wasn’t anything like “We shouldn’t have done this campaign,” but actually “If you were offended, and none of these real Jews were, what does that say about you?” It was basically a passive-aggressive attempt to shame anyone offended by the campaign by accusing them of hyperbolic fake outrage about something “real Jews” don’t even have a problem with.
- Martha Johnson, head of the U.S. General Services Administration. Johnson was responsible for spending over $800,000 on a Vegas trip. She personally apologized to “the American people” for “the entire situation,”which could technically refer to anything from the recession to climate change. Nowhere in her statement did she actually apologize or take personal responsibility.
- Enron’s CEO Jeffrey Skilling. apologizing for some serious corporate malfeasance that destroyed thousands of people’s retirements: “I am devastated by and apologetic about what Enron has come to represent.” No personal apology and assumption of responsibility or that of Enron. Not that Enron has done any bad deeds, but that people, for some inexplicable reason, now think of bad things when they happen to think of Enron, and of course Skilling goes on to say he never did anything wrong. Fortunately, he went to prison for his crimes.
- Republican Congressman Joe Barton. Probably one of the more memorable variations is apologizing for a completely unrelated third party,as Congressman Joe Barton did to BP. After BP’s Gulf oil disaster, the White House asked BP to pay for cleanup of the oil spill. This made Joe Barton livid, saying he was “ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday,” despite not working in that branch of government at all, and “I’m only speaking for myself. I’m not speaking for anyone else, but I apologize. I do not want to live in a country where anytime a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong, subject to some sort of political pressure that, again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown.” This non-apology of “only speaking for myself” while “apologizing” for something his political enemy just did yesterday. That is like the CEO of McDonald’s holding a press conference to “apologize” for how tasteless and bland Burger King burgers are. “I am sorry to every American who had to eat what is basically processed cardboard.”
- Tony Hayward, former CEO of BP. The millionaire CEO of foreign oil giant BP, Tony Hayward, was upset at the inconvenience caused to him by his company’s devastation of the Gulf of Mexico. BP’s offshore drilling explosionclaimed 11 lives on April 20, and has since spewed 20 to 100 million gallons of oil into the Gulf. After apologizing, Hayward then complained about the effect of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on himself, saying “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.” Now Hayward becomes the victim.
- Former President Ronald Reagan. In December 1986. President Reagan conceded that “mistakes were made” by his administration when it sold arms to Iran and shipped the proceeds to Contras in Nicaragua. Reagan used the phrase again a month later, in his 1987 State of the Union address. When Reagan acknowledges that “mistakes were made” in the Iran-Contra affair,he takes the extra step of vowing that he will “get to the bottom of this” and “take whatever action is called for,” implying that he had no knowledge or responsibility for the actions taken. Neither he or his Vice-President George Bush Sr. were ever held to account for their behavior In the matter.
- Former President Bill Clinton. He proved in 1998 that Republicans aren’t the only ones who know a good non-apology apology when they hear one. Asked about a fundraising scandal, he responded that “mistakes were made here by people who did it either deliberately or inadvertently.”
- Former President George W. Bush. Bush added a skillful refinement, the subordinate-clause admission or error, compounding passivity and present-perfection with a conditional “whatever.” Speaking of the Iraq war, Bush said in 2006 that “whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone.“
- Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans. On July 24, 1991,The New York Times reported Evans had offered the prime minister of Malaysia “what might best be described as a non-apology apology” for what the Malaysian government regarded as an insulting portrayal of Malaysia in an Australian television series, Embassy. Speaking to journalists, Evans said he had “wanted to acknowledge fault where such acknowledgment is appropriate”.
- Republican Congressman Ted Yoho. Speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in July 2020, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dismissed what she called a non-apology apology from Yoho for describing her as a “fucking bitch”. After the story went public, Yoho had apologized for the “abrupt manner of the conversation” he had with her but denied having used those words. He never apologized for the actual words he had used of which there was a video.
The Elements of an Effective Apology
Considerable psychological and other research have identified the essential elements of a good apology, which can be applied to both an individual or institutional circumstance: The transgressor must be genuinely remorseful.
- An apology should not be forced or insincere. If it is, it will often be seen that way, lose its impact, or not be accepted or believed.
- The transgressor should deliver the apology with honesty and vulnerability. When the transgressor is willing to share their emotions honesty about the mistake, the impact on others carries greater credibility and emotional significance.
- The transgressor takes personal and full responsibility for their actions and behavior. This means no equivocations, excuses or “non-apologies.
- The transgressor explains that they did and the reasons why it was wrong. This also includes admitting the negative impact the mistake has made on others. This is not the same as providing excuses or rationalizations, but rather an honest admission of the process by why the transgressor made the mistake.
- The transgressor uses “I” statements (or in the case of an institution the individual(s) indicating personal responsibility and avoiding vague reference or projecting blame on others or circumstances.
- The transgressor actually uses the words “I am sorry.” Again, modifiers or language that can essentially avoid personal responsibility such as “It’s unfortunate,” “it’s a sad situation that.”
- The transgressor offers to or makes amends. This means committing to actions that are a promise or commitment of non-repetition or offering to something to correct the injury or harm done.
- The transgressor asks for forgiveness. This can be a controversial element for several reasons. First, if the request for forgiveness early may or may not help the victim or situation. Timing is of the essence. Second, asking for forgiveness should not be used as a manipulative tool to absolve the transgressor of responsibility to make amends.
- The transgressor forgives themselves. The success of healing involves dealing with guilt at the same time of not ignoring the need for remorse.Part of the process of healing is to more effectively deal with the problem of guilt without removing the need for remorse. The transgress needs to heal as well.
If for some reason, the transgressor can’t craft an apology with all these components, the researchers say, the most important element is accepting personal responsibility. The researchers also argue the transgressor should focus on their behavior by taking full personal responsibility rather than apologizing for the victim’s feelings. For example, If you say, “I’m sorry if you were hurt by my words,” that is not an apology, and focuses the responsibility to the person hurt or offended. Instead, a statement like “I’m sorry I said hurtful things” shows the offender takes responsibility.
The second most important element, the research found, is to make amends. While the transgressor might not be able to undo the damage, there are usually steps the transgressor can take to reduce to reduce the harm.
I am forever hopeful that we can collectively see past the differences in political and cultural views, so that when a mistake, an injury occurs, that those responsible take personal and institutional responsibility and apologize properly. We should be demanding that they do so.
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