Do We Want Real Ones?

Business leaders, politicians, and celebrities have learned the importance of offering apologies. But guided by their publicists and spin-doctors, their words have become routine and unconvincing. “It has become . . . an almost reflexive response among leaders to a mistake or, worse, a true crisis,” wrote Andrew Ross Sorkin in The New York Times.

How can we tell if an apology is sincere or reliable? What makes it real?

To be believable, an apology has to be grounded in true remorse. That means, in effect, that the mistakes that occasioned them caused too much embarrassment or guilt for the persons who committed them for them to want to make those mistakes again. If we feel that about the persons apologizing, we might be ready to believe them. As we like to sat, they have learned their lessons.

But in order to be convinced of that, we also have to be convinced the guilty parties understand why they did it. We need to know that the pain has led to soul searching and understanding of not only why it was wrong but how they allowed it to happen. What warnings were ignored? What motivations were too strong to be contained? What distracted them — or why didn’t they care enough in the first place to allow it to happen?

The third ingredient of a true apology is willingness to offer reparations. The guilty parties need to try to fix the effects of their bad behavior on their victims, and not just because they are shamed into doing it. They must want to do it but because they believe it is the right thing to do.

Not every apology measures up to these standards, of course. And not every apology can measure up. Some consequences can’t be undone. Violence and trauma leave indelible scars. Children can’t get back their childhoods, and those betrayed may not be able to regain the trust that was destroyed.

But these are the ingredients of a serious apology, the standards of sincerity against which we measure them.

On the other hand, we often don’t want true apologies. The darker side of the rush of public figures to confess their sins is that they simply want to get it over with, to move on. They want us to forgive and forget — and often we are only too willing to do that. Sometimes the appearance of contrition will suffice because we care more that they uphold the standards of honesty and fairness than that they are actually contrite.

Sorkin cites Dov Seidman, an advisor on organizational culture, who calls this “apology theater.” Speaking at Davos recently, noting that “the act regurgitates a social norm rather than launching an emotional process,” he called for an “apology cease-fire.” (See, “Too Many Sorry Excuses for Apology.”)

But, perhaps, the problem is even deeper. Many of us like our public figures tainted with guilt. That can bring them down to size, reassuring us that they are less grand than they like to seem, and more fallible. But also it can reinforce our cynicism, our tendency to believe in the superficiality and pervasive corruption of the governments and corporations that dominate our lives.

We can complain about this, to be sure, but complaining can also amplify our sense of being victims and, paradoxically, amplify their power.