Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A "Good" Apology

Dov Seidman nostalgically recalls  a time when apologies really meant something.  These days, he believes apology has become a sort of theater.  This is particularly true for public figures, whose apologies more and more frequently seem like performances rather than genuine expressions of remorse.  Seidman contends that the behavior of public figures simply reflects a broader societal norm.  According to Seidman, people today use apologies as a "verbal escape route" or a way to "get out of jail cheaply."  This trend has so cheapened the apology that it has become all but meaningless.

And so Dov Seidman, together with Andrew Ross Sorkin, have started a campaign to draw attention to the current "aplogy crisis."  Their project is called "Apology Watch" and can be found at  and on Twitter under the hashtage #ApologyWatch.  Seidman and Sorkin are asking readers to help them track new public apologies in real time.  The plan is to rate each apology on its level of overall sincerity. 

I first heard about Apology Watch on NPR.  I was immediately intrigued at the idea.  As I do with most things that spark my interest, I decided to do a little research on the topic.  While the focus of Apology Watch is primarily on people in the public arena, I am personally more interested in the function of apologies in interpersonal relationships.  Still, I hoped that some of Seidman's ideas might be applicable on both the large and small scale.     

Seidman believes that the sincerity of a given apology can be measured not so much by its content but by what comes both before and after it.  Before issuing an apology, Seidman contends, an offender should take the time to do some soul searching.  A good apology first requires a period of introspection.

An example of this, Seidman says, is the 2011 apology made by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings for raising subscription rates. The rate increase sparked an immediate backlash from consumers, who cancelled their subscriptions in droves. Stock prices fell over 7% in the weeks after the decision was announced. Two months after implementing the rate increase CEO Hastings issued an apology and restored prices to their original level. Hastings' apology was good, explains Seidman, because it began with "a complete vulnerable revelation" (i.e., success had made him arrogant and that this arrogance motivated his decision to raise prices).  Seidman believes that Hastings could only have come to this realization by looking inside himself and being honest about what he found (i.e., introspection). 

Seidman's suggestion, then, is that before issuing an apology an offender should take a complete moral inventory of himself.  Ken Blanchard and Margaret McBride suggest an offender ask himself the following:

*What mistakes did I make?
*Did I dismiss the feelings, wishes, or ideas of another person?
*Why did I do this?
*Was it an impulsive thoughtless behavior?
*Or was it calcualted?
*Did I act out of fear, anger, or frustration?
*What was my motivation?
*How long did I let this go on?  Has this behavior become a repeated pattern in my life?
*What truth am I not dealing with?
*Am I better than this behavior?

So according to Seidman, a period of introspection, self-examination, etc. should be undertaken before offering an apology.  There are also certain things that should come after a genuine apology.

Seidman states that a genuine apology must be followed by intentional and sustained changes in behavior.  If an apology is sincere, the person apologizing immediately begins to take action to repair, mitigate, or at least atone for whatever damage he has caused. 

So often people want forgiveness but are unwilling to accept the consequences of their actions.  Saying I'm sorry does not immediately restore trust once it has been betrayed; the restoration of trust takes time.  The victim of a betrayal may need the offender to take certain steps to demonstrate his trustworthiness, above and beyond what would otherwise be expected.  The offending party does not get to dictate what measures are "reasonable" or how much time it should take before trust is regained.  If he is genuinely sorry and truly wants forgiveness he must be willling to do whatever it takes for however long it takes.  These are the consequences of his actions.  Aplogizing does not exempt him from these consequences. 

This is something Seidman does not mention in his writing but that I think is relevant.  Perhaps we, as a society, let people off too easily.  Maybe we are too willing to forgive and forget once a public figure apologizes for bad behavior.  A movie star does something appalling; we still watch his movies.  A CEO takes advantage of his customers; we still buy his products or services.  A company abuses its employees; we continue to shop there.  A chemical company dumps toxins in the water supply?  A slap on the wrist and a license to keep operating.  We no longer hold anyone accountable.  We're probably lucky that people bother to apologize at all. 


  1. " Perhaps we, as a society, let people off too easily." Yes, and no.

    In my view, Americans on the whole are far to punishment oriented, harkening back to our Puritanical roots. And in many cases, we not only don't let people off the hook, but are damned well intent to destroy them. But it comes out in the same stratified areas that divide us. Class. Race. Sexuality. Etc. We'll look at the person who's slightly more poor than we are, and who does something wrong, and want them imprisoned for life. Or executed. A similar, or even much more damaging act from someone who is wealthy - many of us will forgive or give them a pass. It's pretty sick if you ask me. A sign of how thoroughly internalized the self and other hatreds stoked by the elite have taken over our lives. The kinds of things Justin Bieber, for example, have gotten away with would land a young black or brown man in prison for years, maybe decades. And once the term is over, they're branded a criminal for the rest of his life.

    The problem in my view is that we're usually too harsh on folks who are struggling just to survive, while we allow those whose negative decisions often harm far more than a single person to just keep on destroying things and abusing others. How much of this is because of an unconscious fear of also being destroyed by them for a calling them to task, I don't know.

    But it's a lot easier to get all righteous and punitive on those who have less power and standing than you.

  2. A good apology:

    1. Wow, that really is a good apology. And a good example for his son!

  3. There is something to be said for atonement, for really drawing a line between past and present behavior, and an apology is an important part of this. But forgiveness seems to mean little if the person who transgressed doesn't sincerely regret and wish for their acts to be forgiven. If we are not willing to atone (i.e. make amends and change whatever we have to in order to uphold our intentions to not repeat the mistake), we should probably not bother with apologies at all.

    1. I agree. The difference between an empty apology and a sincere one is whether or not you are willing to atone for your behavior.


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