Menus Subscribe Search
not-sorry

(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.

More From Ryan O'Hanlon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.