The Art of the Apology Is In A Very Sorry State

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We can chat bot and content create our socks off for our clients, but we’ve still got a bit of the old school in us and we make no apologies for loving the good, old hard copy dictionary.

If we did want to make an apology for it though, we’d look up the word ‘sorry’ and find that it means;

“An admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret.”

Perhaps it’s time for us all to go retro on the word sorry and remember what it actually means – and that it should be heartfelt not grudging and upfront not skulking in the shadows of a lexicon of obscuration.

We always advice clients that if you need to apologise, then do it  - and do it quickly and clearly.

And, that the important thing to do is to actually use the words ‘sorry’ and ‘apology’ and then to explain why – if you can – and go on to outline what you plan to do to remedy the situation.

And then stop talking.

You’ve made your statement.

You have drawn a line under it.  

A few phrases to avoid in this process include:

  • “I am sorry if…” – this makes your apology conditional as it only suggests that something may have happened to upset the listener.
  • “I am sorry that you …” this just shifts the blame from the one apologising to the listener or implies ‘look chum, it’s your fault you feel aggrieved by this…”.
  • “I am sorry but …” this is an excuse-making apology.
  • “I have already …” implies that there is nothing left to say about this and usually said when the word sorry has not actually, previously been used.
  • “I regret…” this sidesteps ownership of the problem.
  • “I know I …”  the listener should stand by for some whitewash.
  • “Mistakes were made …” this passive rhetoric may acknowledge a mistake was made but it doesn’t deliver. Similarly, ‘I made mistakes’ only owns up to the fact that mistakes were made but doesn’t say sorry.
  • And the least said the better about ‘I am sorry you are feeling that way …”.

Many celebrities’ have ‘perfected’ the non apology. On being photographed holding hands with another girl, One Direction’s Zane Malik tweeted, “…I love a girl named Perrie Edwards … I am sorry for what it looks like”.

(Then they broke up and Little Mix had a huge hit with ‘Shout Out To My Ex’ – but that strays into the realms of revenge which is another blog altogether…)

But it’s perhaps our politicians, whilst known for their expertise in avoiding answering a question, who have perfected the pseudo apology.

Priti Patel, reacting to the accusations that she bullied her staff said that she was “Sorry that her behaviour has upset some people.” Later in her staged video apology she went onto shift the blame to the complainers by saying, “I am absolutely sorry for anyone I have upset.” She seems to be apologising but she’s saying sorry for the upset it’s caused and not for the actual behaviour. In fact, it can be interpreted that if these people were upset, it was their fault and not hers.

Priti has previous on the prevaricating apology. When ‘apologising’ for breaking the ministerial code by holding meetings on holiday in Israel, she said,

“In hindsight, I can see how my enthusiasm to engage in this way could be mis-read …”.

She’s very good at taking no ownership for issues for which she has to make public ‘apologies’.

But it was the Boris Johnston/Dominic Cummings fauxpologies for the lockdown breaches in the summer of 2020 which top even these efforts. Prior to Dominic’s none-too-fragrant, rose garden press conference, the PM said, “Yes of course I do regret the confusion and the anger and the pain that people feel.” Run this through Google Translate from Political Twaddle into English and you get;

“It’s a shame this came out, but we’ve got nothing to say sorry for – and we certainly don’t intend to.”

Dominic Cummings managed an hour of statement-giving and journalist-grilling against a backdrop of floribundas without once apologising. The closest he seemed to get was:

“It would have been better to have made this statement earlier.”

And, it didn’t get any more fragrant with;

“I don’t regret what I did … reasonable people might disagree.”

Cummings went onto give another master class on how not to apologise with his overblown mea culpa performance in the select committee. There his tactic seemed to be to ‘over apologise’ for ‘the mistakes we [not I] made’, in order to point the finger at others’ failings in a devastating critique of government COVID actions. A  government he was at the heart of.

Some commentators portrayed him as a bitter man out for revenge – perhaps he should have paired up with Little Mix for a go at the Christmas number one?

But for anyone who needs a textbook example of the ‘fauxpology’ may we suggest watching Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s court mandated apology for illegally bringing their dogs into Australia. Then you will know what being ‘truly sorry’ looks like.

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