I’m sorry to have to tell you this. We suck at apologies.
It wasn’t always so. Let’s compare a recent apology, to another classic example that occurred about a thousand years ago.
Earlier this month, the South Korean rapper PSY issued an apology. Shortly before his appearance at a White House Christmas concert, a little-noticed 2004 performance went viral, causing much embarrassment. In that earlier show, PSY rapped the following lyrics:
Kill those fucking Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives
Kill those fucking Yankees who ordered them to torture
Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law, and fathers
Kill them all slowly and painfully.
These are not the sort of words one expects from a White House guest. PSY apologized on December 7, a day he apparently wished not to live in infamy. Here is what he (or, more likely, his PR firm) said:
While I’m grateful for the freedom to express one’s self, I’ve learned there are limits to what language is appropriate and I’m deeply sorry for how these lyrics could be interpreted. I will forever be sorry for any pain I have caused by those words.
Now let’s examine this putative apology.
What exactly was PSY sorry for? For advocating murder? No. He was “deeply sorry for how these lyrics could be interpreted”? Of course, PSY does not do the interpreting. His listeners do. So PSY was nobly taking responsibility, not for anything he did, but for something the public might do.
Note the phrase “could be interpreted,” as if there are alternatives. How many different ways are there to interpret an imploration to kill the daughters and mothers of American soldiers slowly and painfully? Is there a “neutral” way to interpret those words? A “comedic” way? Is there a “nice” way to construe the words? Please. There is no possible way to interpret those words as anything other than vile.
Finally, note how PSY failed to acknowledge that he caused damage. Instead, he used the mealy-mouth qualifier “any” in the phrase “for any pain I have caused by those words.” “Any” means we don’t know the amount. “Any” means the amount could be zero. PSY (or his PR people) could not even acknowledge causing pain.
Behind the oily baloney of the language loomed the hard reality of his career interests. PSY was not sorry that he had called for the slow and painful death of American wives and daughters. He was sorry that the general public had become aware that he had called for the slow and painful death of American wives and daughters. After all, he rapped those lines in 2004. He had eight years to apologize. The fact that he waited all those years to apologize shows what he was truly sorry for: getting caught.
To see a serious, major league apology, we must turn away from this pathetic poseur and travel back in time almost a thousand years to the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. When Pope Gregory VII tried to reform the investiture process by which bishops were appointed, Henry insisted on retaining the traditional right of emperors to appoint them. He renounced Gregory as pope. Gregory, in turn, excommunicated Henry, a development that did not sit well with Henry’s fellow German princes. Fearing rebellion, Henry decided that he had better make things right with the Pope.
Henry did not content himself bemoaning how his words could be misinterpreted. He issued no proclamations expressing regret for “any pain” he might have caused the Holy See.
No, Henry did more than that. In January 1077, Henry traveled south from Germany, across the Alps, to Canossa, where the Pope was waiting for him. He traveled barefoot. When he arrived at the gates, the Pope wasn’t inclined to see him. So for three days Henry wore a hair-shirt and cooled his heels, if one may use that idiom for a man who has just walked barefoot over the Alps in the dead of winter. Finally, Henry was granted entry. He knelt before the Pope and begged forgiveness. The Pope accepted his apology and welcomed him back into the Church.
To paraphrase Mark Antony’s funeral oration: “Here was an apology. When comes such another?”
Such another has not come for a very long time. Modern apologies have become so patently synthetic that they are not taken seriously. In fact, they are rarely even accepted.
Tiger Woods issued a public apology for cheating on his wife Elin, and announced that he was seeking treatment for “sex addiction.” Neither his wife nor his fans were deceived. All understood that he was very sorry for getting caught, not for engaging in multiple affairs with golf groupies.
Rush Limbaugh announced, on his radio show, that he was “sincerely” sorry for calling Sandra Fluke a slut. Sandra Fluke announced to Barbara Walters, on The View, that she would not accept the apology, since it was given under pressure from sponsors who were pulling out from his show.
One does not have to be a celebrity like Elin Wood or Sandra Fluke to reject a public apology. Karen Klein, the Western New York grandmother who was mercilessly bullied by students on a school bus, rejected their apologies, noting they were probably written by others, and were released to the media first.
Can we improve our apology skills? Of course, we can. This is America. But doing so requires some serious introspection. We need to analyze our apologies and determine why they suck so severely. When we do, rules for improvement emerge.
- Apologize to the one wronged, not to the general public. Apologies must follow the rules of privity in contract law: only the parties to the transaction are bound. If you wronged A, apologize to A, and only to A. Emperor Henry went directly to Pope Gregory to apologize. PSY might have been more credible if he had apologized – in person — at a USO event or at a veterans organization.
- Apologize without qualification. Apologies for “any harm that might have been done” or for “how my words might have been interpreted” are not apologies. They take back with one hand what they offer with the other.
- Apologize without assurance of acceptance. Whether or not to accept the apology is entirely the prerogative of the wronged party. Therefore, a true apologist is a risk taker. He must extend the apology knowing that it might be thrown back in his face. His willingness to face that humiliation imbues his gesture with sincerity.
In the interest of equal time, I should mention that apology recipients sometimes need to mind and mend their ways. It doesn’t pay to overplay one’s hand. Pope Gregory learned that the hard way. After receiving Emperor Henry’s apology and issuing his forgiveness, Gregory backed one of Henry’s rivals in the incessant struggles for power in Germany. Henry suppressed the revolt, and then journeyed back to Italy, only this time not as a barefoot penitent. This time he returned with an army. Gregory excommunicated Henry a second time, and insisted that Henry do penance. Henry replied “Been there, done that,” or its Latin equivalent, and proceeded to enter Rome, depose Gregory, and install a friendlier archbishop as pope.
Gregory died shortly thereafter in a castle by the sea. His last act was to issue an edict, vainly exhorting all of Christendom to join a crusade against Henry.
Sometimes it’s better to accept an apology and quit while you’re ahead.