UPDATE: March 5, 2012:Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh joined the ranks of public apologizers Sunday, just a week after insulting a Georgetown Law student by branding her a "slut." How effective was the apology he offered on his web site? That depends, experts explained in this previous DNews story.
In the past seven days, President Barack Obama has apologized to Afghanistan for NATO troops burning Qurans; German Chancellor Angela Merkel apologized to the relatives of 10 people believed to have been killed by a neo-Nazi group; the Mormon Church said it would discipline members who may have posthumously baptized Anne Frank; and a rising PGA golfer apologized for spitting on the course.
At their best, public apologies restore relationships or even improve them. At their worst, the perpetrator ends up needing to apologize for the botched attempt and the initial offense, said attorney and business ethics expert Lauren Bloom, author of "The Art of the Apology." Even a lousy attempt, however, is better than nothing.
“In many situations, an awkward initial apology can be remedied with a follow-up effort, especially if the person receiving the apology believes that the person making the apology was sincere,” she said. “When something goes wrong, people often need to talk about it more than once. Even a clumsy apology can open the door to a healing dialogue.”
VIDEO: Can you REALLY detect a lie? The answer's here. We promise. Whether public or private, sincerity is the most essential element of an apology, experts agree. That adds a layer of complexity to public apologies: there’s no lack of public opinion to suggest ulterior motives, said Ryan Fehr, assistant professor of management at the University of Washington, whose PhD is in psychology.
“For example, when (NFL star) Michael Vick tried to show he was apologetic for animal abuse, there were plenty of people to suggest that he was just trying to get back in the good graces of the sports league so he could play again,” Fehr said.
Or take the case of golf’s rising star Keegan Bradley, who apologized on Twitter this week for his habit of spitting. "It's like a reflex; I don't even know I'm doing it,” he tweeted.
The incident became so public “even the golfer couldn’t believe how many people cared,” said Jennifer Thomas, co-author of "The Five Languages of Apology," who has a PhD in clinical psychology. “He said he didn’t know why people were so interested in him.”
Since the whole world is watching, Bloom said, public figures often work so hard scripting their speeches that the apology doesn’t seem sincere.
“The longer you put it off and the more you polish it, you’ll deliver something so perfect people don’t believe it,” Bloom said. “A lot of actors do this because they’re performers anyway.”
When done well, the effects of an apology are overwhelmingly positive.
“What an apology does is split the action and the person,” said Fehr, who has published papers on apologies that work. “It says, the action was bad, but I’m not actually a bad person; I mean well. They can regain their status in the community. For the victim, it allows the process of forgiveness to get started."
So, what’s the perfect apology? Experts have their own multi-faceted definitions, but they share common elements:
- Timing: The person making the apology needs to wait long enough to determine exactly what the apology is for, but no longer, Bloom says.
- Genuine repentance
- Expression of regret: “We all have our own scripts from childhood, what we were taught to say,” Thomas said. The language, therefore, may vary and is most effective when it matches the language of the victim.
- Making amends: Future actions are important, too. If the perpetrator shows the victim he or she will do better next time, forgiveness is easier.
- Taking responsibility
- Emotional connection: Recognizing that the pain you’ve caused also causes you pain helps the victim and perpetrator connect
- Willingness to listen to the victim
What perfect apologies don't do: Get defensive, deny, or use the conditional. Politicians often make this mistake, Bloom said, with lines like, “I apologize if I offended anyone.” “Their sincerity immediately comes into question,” Bloom said. “You know you have to apologize or you wouldn’t be doing it.”
Whether an apology works depends in large part on the person or people being apologized to. Reactions to apologies vary widely.
“When we surveyed 500 people about what they're looking to hear in an apology, their answers fell into five areas,” Thomas said. “I had thought that one of the five categories would get that most votes, and I thought it would be saying, ‘I'm sorry.’ But none of the five got more than 28 percent.”
How did this week’s apologies rate?
Obama hit many of the essential elements, experts said, in his apology to Afghanistan.
“President Obama generally does really well,” Bloom said. “He doesn’t delay. If he makes a mistake he admits it immediately and apologizes. He’s got the vernacular down: he talks like a real person, which makes him much more credible. He made one mistake in this apology: he said it was an accident. It wasn’t an accident; it was a mistake. But I give him more points for doing it immediately than not having the language perfect.”
Merkel’s apology was exceptionally spot-on, Bloom said. Americans often have a hard time admitting weakness, Bloom said. Merkel’s statement backs up her theory that Europeans are more comfortable apologizing.
The Mormon Church didn’t fare as well with its reaction to the Anne Frank baptism, experts agreed, appearing somewhat disingenuous.
“If more baptisms of Holocaust victims and survivors slip through the cracks, the church's statements of concern and remorse could be increasingly perceived as insincere,” Fehr said. “To demonstrate the sincerity of their concern and remorse, the church must devote sufficient resources to ensure that new names submitted for baptism are properly researched and checked.”
A hefty donation to the Holocaust Museum wouldn’t hurt, Bloom added.