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(PHOTO: ALEX GUERRERO/FLICKR)

We Suck at Sorry

• December 12, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: ALEX GUERRERO/FLICKR)

If you need an “if” added to the end of your apology, it’s not an apology.

It’s not the most notable example, but it’s the most recent one I can remember. Last week, after police decided not to charge Florida State quarterback and Heisman frontrunner Jameis Winston with rape, the NBC Sports Radio Twitter account tweeted the following message:

In keeping with what seems like a mass, ongoing effort by inhuman entities to do anything that will make them appear the slightest bit human, this was an insensitive (at best) attempt to, I believe the word is, “synergize” a radio station or a brand with a fraught current or historical event. The tweet was quickly deleted, only to be followed with this:

At this point, if someone issues a public apology, they’re probably not actually apologizing.

The term “non-apology” first appeared in 1971, but it wasn’t commonly used until the late ’90s and then on into today. It’s when you apologize … if you’ve offended anyone. “I’m sorry … if you felt this way.” Or when you say you’re sorry because you didn’t mean to do whatever terrible thing you ended up doing. It’s a conditional apology. It’s an apology, plus more some words that make it into something that’s not an apology.

Here’s a brief, partial list of people who’ve employed the form: Alberto Gonzalez, Pete Rose, Paul Wolfowitz, Justin Bieber, Daniel Tosh, Don Imus, Beyonce, the kid from Two and a Half Men, Ricky Gervais, Hugh Grant, the chairman of Lululemon, John Mayer, Serena Williams, Michael Richards, Chris Brown, Sarah Palin.

To all of those names: If you’re willing to go through the whole process of “issuing an apology,” why not just, you know, actually apologize?

THE HARDEST PART OF apologizing, when you’re first learning how, is having to see the person you stole that baseball card from or punched off of the see-saw when you apologize to them. It’s not difficult to say the right words; it’s the whole process of bringing yourself to begin to say them that can be excruciating. When you give a non-apology, you’re avoiding the hardest part. Or, if you’re issuing a prepared statement, the hardest part doesn’t exist. Should it be so difficult to just say “I’m sorry for [thing]. It won’t happen again”? And if you’re not planning on saying that, why say anything at all?

Part of the issue is the English language, which is not always easy to understand. “The big problem with the word ‘sorry,’ which is a very old root going way back to Ango-Saxon times, is that (like so many thousands of other common words) it is polysemous: it has a cluster of meanings, not all of them closely similar,” Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist at the University of Edinburgh, told me over email. “ It has evolved over more than a thousand years through meaning (1) grieved or regretful, (2) showing grief or regret, (3) causing grief, (4) poor or wretched, (5) pathetic, (6) in poor condition, (7) having sympathy, and various other such meanings, as well as its straightforward ‘I’m sorry’ apologetic use.”

While not apologizing is passive, giving a non-apology is an active refusal to apologize, couched in the language of apology.

With so many slightly different uses, the word doesn’t necessarily lend itself to simple, unambiguous use. Or, at least, it’s a word that’s easily manipulated. And it gets manipulated, Pullum said, “Because [people] don’t really want to take responsibility or admit guilt or make proper amends.”

If you don’t want to properly apologize, though, why do it at all? It’s maybe fooling one or two people, but to the legitimately-aggrieved, isn’t it just making things worse? This shades the non-apology in a particularly sinister hue.

“A true apology entails two essential components: regret and responsibility,” according to Ryan Fehr, a professor at the University of Washington who has done extensive research on apologies and forgiveness. “The offender must admit responsibility over what happened, and express regret for his or her actions. These ‘full’ apologies are psychologically difficult.”

Not only is it psychologically difficult to apologize, then; new research suggests that it’s also beneficial to not apologize. The researchers found that people who refused to apologize in a given situation experienced increased feelings of self-worth, control, and even, occasionally, integrity. While not apologizing is passive, giving a non-apology is an active refusal to apologize, couched in the language of apology.

“[Non-apologies] push the blame onto the victim, essentially arguing that the whole episode is the victim’s fault for misinterpreting the offender’s actions or being overly sensitive,” Fehr said. “These non-apologies do not require people to think of themselves as offenders.”

LAST SUMMER, THE HARVARD Business Review published a piece about the difficulties of corporate apologies between Japan and the United States. “Americans see an apology as an admission of wrongdoing,” it reads, “whereas Japanese see it as an expression of eagerness to repair a damaged relationship, with no culpability necessarily implied.” And because of this forward-looking, more-practical perspective, the authors found that Japanese survey respondents offered 11.5 apologies per week, compared to 4.51 from Americans. When you’re not staking out some kind of uncertain moral ground, a favorite practice in the United States, it’s easier to apologize—and probably less beneficial to purposely not apologize.

Further confounding matters, the idea that an apology is an admission of responsibility also creates legal complications. “As a result, organizations are often hesitant to apologize out of fear that it will introduce legal culpability,” Fehr said. “Interestingly, this perspective seems to be changing in some industries, and we see some organizations becoming more willing to allow their employees to apologize for their mistakes.”

Recently, Fehr said, part of the medical industry, which once operated under a “deny and defend” approach when it came to possible malpractice, has begun to offer sincere apologies whenever mistakes are made. While only established in a couple of different hospital systems, the just-say-sorry approach has been a positive for both medical professionals and patients. As Kevin Sack wrote about the Johns Hopkins and Stanford medical centers in the New York Times in 2008:

By promptly disclosing medical errors and offering earnest apologies and fair compensation, they hope to restore integrity to dealings with patients, make it easier to learn from mistakes and dilute anger that often fuels lawsuits.

Malpractice lawyers say that what often transforms a reasonable patient into an indignant plaintiff is less an error than its concealment, and the victim’s concern that it will happen again.

Despite some projections that disclosure would prompt a flood of lawsuits, hospitals are reporting decreases in their caseloads and savings in legal costs. Malpractice premiums have declined in some instances, though market forces may be partly responsible.

To take a cynical view: If you apologize properly—even after accidentally removing someone’s rib—you won’t be making things worse.

WHILE THE PROLIFERATION OF apologizing-but-not-apologizing seems fueled by some messy combination of very present socio-cultural factors—all somehow connected to a need for self-preservation and very American emphasis on the individual—Pullum and Fehr both maintain that proper apologies are as important today as they’ve ever been.

“Apologizing, the way we understand it now, is neither self-justification nor mere sadness at the state of affairs,” Pullum said. “It amounts to making explicit both your responsibility for the situation and your regret at what you have personally done.”

“We want the social harmony that apologies bring,” Fehr said, “we just don’t like the act of apologizing itself.”

Yet, that’s what non-apologies are: an act of apologizing. It’s taking the hardest part of apologizing—beginning to say you’re sorry—and then forgetting how to speak. Except, that’s often all an act, too, because the non-apology rarely comes from anyone with a genuine desire to apologize. At worst, it turns expressing regret into some kind of cruel grasp at myopic moral high ground or this blind charade that hopefully bumps into the realm of apology. At best, it’s a complete waste of everyone’s time.

If that sounds too moralistic, I apologize.

Ryan O'Hanlon
Senior Digital Editor Ryan O’Hanlon joined Pacific Standard from Outside, where he was an online editor. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and his writing has appeared in Grantland, the New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @rwohan.

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