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Image / Editorial

Have we lost sight of what a real apology should be?

by Roe McDermott
04th Nov 2018

A boy holding up a paper saying sorry

In an era where public apologies are issued every day, Roe McDermott examines what makes a good apology – and why it’s actions, not words, that should demonstrate real remorse

This summer, I went through one of those horrible but infrequently addressed life experiences: I had a friendship break-up. And it happened in a way I would have never expected.

While on a trip with my friend, I had had horrible and threatening encounter with a man that left me scared and shaken. I turned to my kind, empathetic, feminist friend for support, but was shocked at her response. She was cold and blaming and dismissive and outright ignored me for days – no mean feat when you’re travelling together.

Finally, after a few days of silence and discomfort and stress, I incredulously said to her that I found her reaction bizarre and cruel, that she was punishing me and I didn’t understand why. “Sorry,” she said. “I should have asked if you were okay.”

I struggled to respond. Her apology seemed weak, perfunctory. It hadn’t acknowledged her victim-blaming, that she had literally ignored me crying, or explained her decision to isolate me for days. She had completely changed in my eyes; she was no longer someone I could trust or go to for emotional support, and I couldn’t pretend that a one-line apology would immediately fix that. This would have to be something we worked through, together. So I was honest.

“Thanks for saying that. But I’m still upset. I can’t just jump back to acting normal.”

And then it happened. The nail in the coffin. Her eyes narrowed in irritation.

“Jesus. I said sorry. What else do you want?”

I realised then the reason her apology seemed perfunctory was because she didn’t mean it.  She was only saying the word “sorry” so she would no longer have to deal with my emotions or an uncomfortable situation – which was exactly why she had ignored me in the first place. She was still dismissing my feelings and prioritising her comfort level. My friend’s apology wasn’t for me, it was just another act of self-preservation. And as it turned out, it was one we wouldn’t recover from.

The standards of a good apology 

My initial wariness about my friend’s apology was instinctive, but apparently, I was on to something. Experts such as Michael Karson, professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology, claim that good apologies fulfilfour basic criteria:

Does the apology acknowledge what they did, why they did it, the damage they caused, and why it won’t happen again?

My friend’s apology had barely hit one of these standards. But bad apologies have increasing become the norm. Thanks to celebrities, politicians and business people issuing terrible, self-serving public apologies on a daily basis, we have lost sight of what a real apology should be. An apology isn’t a band-aid, or a PR exercise in damage control. It’s the result of introspection, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, an exercise in empathy and a promise to be better.

But instead, apologies have merely become a way to avoid consequences, halt criticism and make life easier for the person who has done something wrong.

Take the recent example of David Mesher, the man who inflicted a racist tirade on fellow passenger Delsie Gayle during a Ryanair flight last week. In a video of the incident, Mesher can be seen shouting and aggressively gesturing at 77-year-old Gayle, saying “Don’t talk to me in a f*****g foreign language you stupid ugly cow”, and calling her an “ugly, Black b***h.”

After the video made headlines last week, Mesher appeared on UK breakfast show Good Morning Britain to apologise. Supposedly.  

“I probably lost my temper a bit,” he said. “I’m not a racist person by any means and it’s just a fit of temper at the time, I think,” he said, then directing a comment at Gayle directly. “I apologise for all the distress you’ve had there and since.”

Mesher’s statement quickly reveals itself to be meaningless and self-serving; a prime example of a bad apology. He minimizes his actions by saying he lost his temper “a bit.” His vague and passive language avoids empathy or even admitting that he alone was the source of Gayle’s distress. And, importantly, he demonstrates no awareness of or intent to transform the anger, racism and entitlement that led him to harm another person.

This is categorically a bad apology. But what happens when an apology does seem to hit every note of a decent apology – but something still feels off?

#Metoo and the spectrum of apologies

#MeToo has offered up an endless array of public apologies that have varied in their expressions of remorse and accountability.

But one apology that actually received praise was Louis CK’s apology for masturbating in front of several women without their consent. Initially when CK’s apology was issued in November 2017, many people commended CK for acknowledging the widespread pain he had caused, as well as the privilege that allowed him to do so. He ended his apology with a pledge to examine his behaviour and attitudes towards women, saying “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”

Except, now Louis CK is coming back, and there’s no suggestion that he has changed. During his recent appearances at comedy clubs in New York, he has joked about rape whistles, complained  that the allegations made him lose “$35 million in an hour” and stated that he has been to “been to hell and back.”

Really? CK offered no financial compensation to his victims and never acknowledged that many of the women who came forward to accuse him lost jobs, income and have received harassment and death threats. He’s also offered no evidence that he has attended therapy to address his misogyny, or taken steps to support victims of sexual violence at large. A multi-millionaire merely lived his very privileged life more quietly for a while, and is now only speaking of his own suffering? That doesn’t seem like there was much listening happening, at all.

Apologies and actions

What seems to be absent from our current attitude towards apologies is an awareness that an apology is a beginning, not the endpoint.

The word “sorry” is not transformative; it doesn’t magically erase the pain that preceded it. “Sorry” is merely an acknowledgement that you have caused pain, and it should be uttered thoughtfully – but the word itself is not an action. “Sorry” is the start. It’s the bare minimum. The intent behind an apology can’t be measured in the words uttered, but by the actions that follow them.

I read once that in conflict and in love, you should look at someone’s actions as if they were characters in a silent movie. Without dialogue, would their actions show that they’re a good person? The same standard should apply after an apology. Even after someone issues a good apology, their actions should be expected to match their promises. And we shouldn’t apologise for needing that.