Depending on what minute you’re on in a particular day, a celebrity is probably apologizing for something. Maybe it’s Ellen DeGeneres apologizing for having one of the worst places to work in the world. Maybe it’s former NBA player Stephen Jackson apologizing for defending, then somehow continuing to defend NFL player DeSean Jackson’s anti-semitism. There are entire lists of celebrity apologies that made things worse, because people can’t apologize, because people are scared of apologizing. This is why people say insufferable, worthless things such as “I’m sorry you feel that way,” and “I’m sorry for the way I said that,” versus actually trying to make someone feel better. It’s an act of cowardice bred by a western culture that became obsessed with corporate America, pop-lawyering and pop-psychology.
In truth, a real apology – one that truly is sorry, and truly seeks to mend things, is an act of courage. There’s no perfect way to apologize, but I want to try and help you make steps towards doing so.
Why are people so scared of saying I’m sorry?
The simple apology – “I’m sorry” – is something that alludes most people because of a fear of repercussions. It’s the social version of thinking that if you don’t have a signature on a contract there was no agreement. If you don’t say sorry, you’re not admitting guilt, and by abstraction you’re not guilty of whatever it is you might be asked to apologize for. People think that by not admitting to doing something wrong – even if they did something, and it had the affect of what happened after they did it – they are somehow guiltless, and that without an apology, there’s no admission of wrongdoing, just like a court settlement.
This also extends to saying the three little words “but” immediately following an apology. “I”m sorry, but-” removes the apology and replaces it with whatever else you’ve got to say afterwards, and may as well say “I’m not sorry, and it’s because.” If you say “I’m sorry you feel that way,” you’re a worthless ghoul, and know exactly what you’re doing, because “I’m sorry you feel that way,” as well as its cousin “I’m sorry I made you feel that way” are simply abstractions of saying “I don’t think I did anything wrong, and you’re at fault here.”
In essence, not apologizing, or making someone feel like they have to apologize for something you did to them, is a form of abuse. Even if you believe what you did was right and they overreacted, frankly, you should try and understand why your seemingly-harmless actions had a negative effect. And, for the most part, if you’re someone who said “I’m sorry you feel that way,” you already know you messed up.
How to actually apologize.
I had originally had an evaluation of a crisis situation here, but I think something very basic needs to be said here.
- If you are apologizing, say “I’m sorry.”
- Whatever your apology is, and your actions are, you should make sure they are declarative, and fully take care of the situation. It may seem like the easiest thing to do would be to do little things to make things better and hope that you can do the bare minimum to get through a situation, but you are most likely wrong, and it will make you look worse.
- Say you are sorry, why you did it (if there is an explanation), and then what you will be doing to fix things.
- Once you have done that, stop talking about it. If you are asked about it more, say that you’ve made your statement on the situation. If it’s a legal situation, refer them to your legal counsel.
Though this is very generalized, the core of it is simple – actually apologize, own your mistake, don’t hand-wave, don’t attempt to blame it on someone else, and then 𝙎𝙃𝙐𝙏 𝘿𝘼 𝙁𝙐𝘾𝙆 𝙐𝙋 . If you keep getting asked about it, it’s most likely because you didn’t really apologize or didn’t do enough to fix the problem. In truth, you are never going to satisfy everyone, but you should try and make a satisfactory apology and solution.
Here’s a simple one: Mookie Betts in 2016 said that he would never kneel for the national anthem, as he believed it was insulting to the military. He then chose to kneel during a game in July 2020. He said the following:
“I wasn’t educated. That’s my fault,” said Betts, who the day prior inked a 12-year, $365 million contract extension. “I need to be educated on the situation. I know my dad served and I’ll never disrespect the flag, but there’s also gotta be change in the world, and kneeling has nothing to do with those who served our country.”
This is good apology for the following reasons:
- He said he was at fault (“my fault”). He did not attempt to say “there were exterior pressures” or something else.
- He explained his previous position as uneducated, that he had sought education, and at the end of said education had, in fact, realized that he could both respect the American flag and kneel, because kneeling does not disrespect the flag, the military, or his father, and that it’s an act of defiance against negative forces in the world. That’s called “taking action“.
An Actual Apology Beats Any Explanation
The core of a good apology is that you’re actually sorry. A great deal of people think that an apology has a necessary amount of explanations of intention – why you did what you did, the things going on in your mind, the powerful reasons that endeared you to do the thing that made you do the thing. The problem is that the more you explain, the more likely you are to have to apologize for something else, and the less sorry you actually seem.
Take the United flight where a passenger was brutally beaten for not giving up their seat on an allegedly overbooked flight. The passenger, a 69-year-old man, was pulled from his seat and beaten unconscious by the police. Initially, United CEO Oscar Munoz said that he would have a thorough investigation done, only to then try and justify the act by saying the passenger was “disruptive and belligerent,” in a letter to his staff.
An important detail here is that, clearly, Munoz believed that it was right that the passenger was assaulted by cops, because he would not abide by airline rules (?). Putting aside the sociopathy of seeing that video and thinking “well, he should have left his seat,” Munoz could have literally said nothing, or said “it’s truly abominable that passenger was treated that way,” then settled this quietly. However, because he insisted on explaining what happened as quickly as humanely possible, he I’m-sorry-butted himself into a scandal.
His letter to his people could have been short – he didn’t leave his seat, he was asked to leave, and he was brutally beaten, and we’re disgusted by the cops that did this, who do not work for United, I’m sorry you all had to see this, that’s bad, I as CEO am meeting with X person at the Chicago Aviation Security Authority to do Y. But sadly, he had to explain himself, because deep down – I assume – Munoz believed the cops acted well, a thing he could have hidden inside his horrible brain, and thus explained how much of a ghoul he was.
A whole day later, the Airline referred to the event as horrific, took full responsibility, and Munoz had to appear on Good Morning America to talk about how much shame he felt. It was an unforced error after a series of extremely unforced errors, compounded by more unforced errors, all getting away from doing one thing: saying sorry.
Here’s how this should have gone:
- United should have found out everything immediately before issuing a statement beyond “we’ve seen the video, and it’s truly horrifying.”
- Behind the scenes, United should have immediately seen to the full medical treatment of the passenger, paid for every possible form of comfort possible, and made sure, uh, he wasn’t dead. This is not for PR purposes, this is for “being human being” purposes.
- They should have issued an internal memo saying that an investigation was taking place, and that they were going to find out exactly what happened, but this was not a thing that should happen, ever, and that something would be done, but obviously this was an extremely big deal and thus needed a full evaluation.
- They should have then put out a statement saying that pending investigation, they were fully taking care of the passenger who had been hurt, and that United passengers, guests, and human beings should not and will not be treated like that.
- They should have then put out the statement around how sorry they were, and that they were working with the authorities to stop these violent acts ever happening again, and they were sorry to the passenger, anyone who was around him or on the plane, and anyone who ever flew United, as this was extremely traumatic.
- They should have then publicly apologized to him, given him free first class on United for the rest of his life, very publicly disclosed a settlement with him, because it made it look like they were actually sorry.
- They also should have put real money into de-escalation training with the Chicago airport authorities who very much seem to be the people who messed up here!
Note: they settled with the passenger anyway. Possibly for $140 million. I do wonder how much cheaper this would have been had Munoz not gone ahead and tried to explain why he was beaten unconscious and dragged off of the plane like a dead animal.
The important part of everything I’ve written above is that very little of it actually explains anything. There was no explanation that United could have given that would warrant what happened to the passenger. What people cared about was whether the guy was alive, healthy, able to breathe, because they imagined themselves in that situation and were horrified.
In whatever situation you find yourself where the end point is everyone being mad at you, nobody wants to know whether you had good intentions, nobody wants to hear the saga that led you to doing a bad thing. It doesn’t matter if you had some sort of justification for the thing you did wrong. People want to hear you’re sorry, they want to hear you’re doing something to fix it, and then they don’t want to hear anything more from you that doesn’t noticeably improve the situation.
Evaluate. Sort the situation out as best you can. Make a statement. Shut up.
A note on “if things are worse than they seem.”
If you’re in a situation where you’ve apologized only for what’s come out, you have two choices – you can either get ahead of what’s happening and make a statement that addresses it, or you can keep it hidden, so that when it comes out you have to do this dance again. This is always a tricky one, depending on the egregiousness of what you did. For the most part, this is one I’d hand off to a lawyer, as it’s so broad it’s unanswerable.
Let’s take a data breach. The media announces that there has been a breach of your information and only disclosed that there were names and addresses revealed. You know social security numbers have been revealed too. You should go ahead and disclose that the moment you can, despite the fact that you know it will damage your reputation. Why? Because hiding it will damage your reputation more. Note, this obviously must play second fiddle to the security of your current data and any potential ways in which you have to protect users, but for the most part, if it’s leaked, and it’s been compromised, you have to go to the media and tell them immediately.
The Beauty of Silence (And Time)
A classic problem with apologies is the silence immediately following them. You’ve said sorry, you’ve said you’re doing something, and everyone’s still mad. Why are they still mad? You said you’re sorry, and what you’re going to do, but everyone’s still mad at you and asking for more explanations! What do you do?
- Step 1: Nothing
- Step 2: The things you said you’d do to make the thing better
What you don’t do is continue to answer questions, or worse still continue to answer questions nobody’s asked about the situation. If you get a media inquiry, you point them to your previous statement. You say “nothing further to add at this time.”
This applies everywhere – arguments with your spouse, colleagues, friends, professional events, wherever you’ve chosen to mess up. The classic folly most people make with an apology is expecting it to be an emotional panacea, immediately making the person feel better and totally recovered. You will simply have to weather the storm in silence, or by repeating yourself and saying you’re sorry, and repeating your statement. If you can, the best solution is simply to say nothing more at this time – you cannot fix the problem more than you have done, and you will only make it worse.
You also do not want to get pissed off and keep talking, thus making more stuff for you to have to apologize for.
You may even find said person you’ve wronged, even accidentally, keeps bringing it up – it’s your job to realize that the injured party, the victim, is still hurt, and you have done wrong. You will likely repeat yourself. You will get new questions, and you may have to say “as I have said,” without a drop of venom or frustration. That’s because you did something wrong, and you cannot travel back in time to fix it.
The most important thing here, which applies to all apologies, is to actually mean it. If you don’t mean it, you will break, and your non-apology will make things worse. Depending on the situation, you may have apologized to keep the peace. If you actually want to keep the peace, act as if you are sorry, by which I mean returning to the above repetition of your statement.
It’s so easy to fill air to “fix” things or “give your side of the story.’ But the truth is, if you are actually apologizing, your side of the story no longer matters. The side of the story that matters is the person or party you’ve wronged, and making things better with them.
And finally…”what if I’m not actually wrong?”
You are not reading this because you’re not actually wrong. Give me a break. If you’re reading this and internalizing it, it’s because your apologies keep leading to bigger, stupider arguments, and even bigger, stupider apologies. You keep having arguments with the same person or party despite saying you’re sorry, and you’re not sure why that is. The reason is because you are not actually sorry, or you are not actually apologizing, or some combination therein.