Patrick Paglen discusses why certain apologies work and others don’t.
Recent media events and personalities have led me to conclude that the art of the apology is not practiced well in this culture, if it is practiced at all. I suspect that this is due to a particular attitude that we have cultivated regarding apologizing: we might believe, in our hearts if not our heads, that to apologize means to admit defeat in some contest, to forfeit a position of power, or to demonstrate weakness in the face of social pressure. Anyone entertaining this perception of what it means to apologize will be loath to do so even when it is called for, and when finally responding to the controversy that warrants the apology, will deliver a rather insincere one. Another reason we might be so poor at apologizing is that we – once again in our hearts if not our heads – believe that we are justified in the offending behavior. Therefore, while we respond to objections, we have no intention of changing the behavior.
To apologize does not need to mean showing weakness or losing a game. What an apology demonstrates is wisdom to reflect on one’s actions and change as necessary. Someone who can apologize well can make friends of enemies, learn from experience, and become more proficient in any walk of life. Even when the prevailing assumption is that apologizing means weakness, a good apologist can risk looking weak and end up looking stronger. A good apologist looks out for the well-being of a relationship, and doesn’t dwell on social standing. In effect, a good apologist is a good leader. But if an apology operates under the assumption of a power struggle, it can demonstrate only either one’s arrogance, or useless self-flagellation and deflation of one’s power of the kind you see in an Amy Schumer sketch.
A poor apology changes nothing but where to place blame. A good apology actually addresses the offense. A good apology means acknowledging specifically what you were doing wrong, articulating why it was wrong, demonstrates promise to change the wrong behavior, includes (if possible) an act to rectify the damage your behavior has caused, and (optionally) has a token of peace to demonstrate you want to stay connected to the offending party.
Imagine that you are slamming a heavy door over and over. The reason is irrelevant; maybe you like the noise. But someone’s foot is stuck in the door frame and their toes are being destroyed by you before they can get away. When they cry out, you stop and see the other person and their banged-up toes. A poor apology would either be “I don’t intend to hurt you and I feel bad that your foot is in the way” before continuing to slam the door. A good apology, however, runs like this: “Crap, your toes must hurt from me slamming the door; it was wrong and shameful of me- your wellness is more important than my slamming. Here, let me get a first-aid kit and ice for your foot. Maybe I can also get us some drinks while you rest your wound?”
Something to keep in mind while apologizing is the reaction of the offended parties (and this is possibly the hardest part about apologizing). They may not be willing to hear your apology, or would feel uncomfortable with you trying to do something to make up for it. Depending on the severity, they may never want to hear from you ever again, and attempts to connect with them again might just make things worse for everyone involved. In this scenario, it is still important to apologize to yourself, as a promise to to change so you don’t do the same wrong to anyone else, and perhaps stop the same harm from happening in other situations. Also keep in mind that a) it may not be physically possibly to fix the error or b) you may not be the right person for the task. In this case, find things to do as substitute actions.
Now let’s take a look at some pop culture examples of apologizing. On the first episode of this season’s Project Greenlight, Matt Damon interrupted producer Effie Brown over issues of diversity within the film industry. After viral media shaming, he provided an apology. Notice that his apology was vague, was excused by editing, and defensive of his commitment to diversity. He avoided attributing any wrongdoing to himself, and instead implicitly blamed other for being offended by his words, and failed to acknowledge not his views but how he expressed his views on the subject. He missed the opportunity to state “Looking at the footage, I can now see that I look like a man in power overtaking the voice of a minority and a woman with my own opinion, ironically, on the subject of diversity. This is embarrassing and does not do justice to my own commitments to diversity. I am taking Ms. Brown’s words seriously as well as practicing awareness so this does not happen again.”
Last year, Dr. Matt Tyler, a scientist overseeing the Rosetta comet probe project, appeared in public to speak about his team’s endeavors wearing a shirt deemed by many to be sexist, so public controversy ensued. In the same week, on a public panel discussing the lander, Dr. Tyler apologized. Something important to note here is that Dr. Tyler was in a setting where no-one was speaking on the controversy, and when he was addressed to speak, it was regarding his work on the probe. Dr. Tyler took the initiative to apologize at that moment. And while he did not use elegant words, the combination of offering the apology outside the context of controversy and the raw contrition in his tears demonstrated that he took the criticism to heart and likely learned from his mistakes. His regained composure in speaking on the subject at hand also demonstrates confidence and competence.
The steps above for apologizing are a guide, and you can modify them when needed. You do not need to be eloquent to apologize well, nor become overwhelmed with public contrition. You don’t need to excuse yourself or justify your offensive actions, and you don’t need to fear loss of standing. All you need to do to apologize well is to be a bit courageous, show you recognize your error, and work on changing for the better.