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Pondering the apology.

Byline: Robert Z. Nemeth


Seldom does a week go by without somebody demanding an apology for something somebody else did: "The paper owes its readers an apology for printing such rubbish," a letter in the People's Forum screams. "Councilor so-and-so should apologize for insulting the people with such a stupid idea," an opponent suggests. "An apology is in order," an observer pontificates.

There was a time when an apology actually meant something. But now it has become a ritual, a social phenomenon, and an all-but-empty gesture. People and institutions routinely demand, and often receive, apologies, whether they are meant or not.

Apology has become a cottage industry. A Chinese company, The Tianjin Apology and Gift Center, delivers apologies for a fee. Its motto: We Say Sorry For You.

Some more notable apologies have included one by the CEO of Firestone for defective tires, and another by the head of United Airlines for bad service.

Others have included F.W. DeKlerk for apartheid; the Pope for the Holocaust; Boris Yeltsin for the massacre of 50,000 Polish army officers; Tony Blair for the Irish Potato Famine; the U.S. government for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; George Steinbrenner for firing Yogi Berra 14 years earlier; Cardinal Bernard Law for pedophile priests; Bill Clinton for Monica Lewinsky; and several members of the Kennedy family for various misdeeds, just to mention a few.

Dr. Aaron Lazare, former dean and chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is a leading authority on shame, humiliation and apology. He contends that an effective apology, especially for a more serious offense, must meet four criteria: acknowledge the offense, communicate remorse, show forbearance and/or shame and offer an explanation for the offense. Partial and pseudo-apologies tend to be vague, evade guilt, or put the onus on the aggrieved parties by implying they misinterpreted the offense or are too thin-skinned.

It is not a proper apology to say, "I am sorry for anything that I did," or, "I am sorry for whatever I might have done to upset you."

Richard Nixon's resignation speech sidestepping responsibility through evasion was a classic pseudo-apology: "I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of events that led to this decision. I would say only if some of my judgments were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be in the best interests of the nation."

Bill Clinton's quasi-apology after striking a deal with an independent counsel was a classic example of evasion and doubletalk. "I tried to walk a line between acting lawfully and testifying falsely, but now I recognize that I did not fully accomplish this goal and that certain of my responses to the questions about Ms. Lewinsky were false."

Former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, accused of putting his hands around a player's neck during practice, said: "I have always been confrontational, especially when I know I am right. If I'm not good at forgetting something and going on, I am truly sorry for that."

This is how Fuzzy Zoeller responded to criticism about his remarks about Tiger Woods: "My comments were not intended to be racially derogatory, and I apologize for the fact that they were misconstrued in that fashion. I'm sorry if I offended anybody. If Tiger is offended by it, I apologize to him, too."

People sometimes rush to apologize as a defense mechanism, without actually knowing whether they have done anything wrong, to avoid possible consequences: "What do you want from me? I said I was sorry."

Pseudo-apology could be minimizing or questioning the offense that occurred. One noted example was former Sen. Robert Packwood's response to accusations of sexual harassment: "I apologize for the conduct that it was alleged that I did."

Dr. Lazare acknowledges that at times even forced or insincere apologies might have their value, especially in the corporate world or in the legal system. For example, an airline could regain confidence by apologizing for flight delays, or a defendant is likely to get a lighter sentence by showing remorse in court.

Dr. Lazare, author of the acclaimed book "On Apology," says women tend to be more receptive to apology than men because they are more interested in restoring relationships. With men it's often winning or losing. It is a common perception that apologizing is a sign of weakness even though it should be seen as a sign of strength.

Dr. Lazare's contribution is important because, as long as apologies are a booming cottage industry, they ought to be done properly. Better yet, apologies should be used only when they are truly warranted.

If people learned to live with fewer chips on their shoulders, or developed a sense of tolerance, perhaps even a sense of humor, there would be no need for apologies.

But apologies are here to stay because they are an easy way out. It is more convenient for nations to apologize for historic abuse than to correct mistakes, and it is easier for public officials to apologize for, say, potholes or poor snow removal than to provide better services. It is relatively painless to avoid consequences by pretending to be sorry. After all, who would reject an apology, sincere or phony?

Robert Z. Nemeth's column appears regularly in the Sunday Telegram and Gazette.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Mar 3, 2013
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