It could be argued that 2013 was the year of the public apology. While celebrity mea culpas are nothing new, it is hard to think of a year in which so varied and so frequently, the regrets and shameful behavior of public figures have been presented to the public. From celebrity chef Paula Deen to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford to disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, in 2013, we were all truly, very (and sometimes disastrously) sorry.
But what does a public apology mean in a culture in which it is mandatory? And from people for whom public opinion is the very foundation of their livelihoods? When the behavior is truly terrible, dangerous or brazen, can words even make it better?
The common wisdom among psychologists suggests that apologizing for bad behavior, though intended for those offended, actually makes the offender feel better too.
"While a public apology may seem trivial, it has a powerful effect on the person making the apology, as it internally puts the apologizer at odds with his or her beliefs," Ugo Uche, a licensed professional counselor who specializes in adolescent behavior, explained in Psychology Today. "The human brain is designed to be congruent, and when people engage in behavior that contradicts their values, they experience inner turmoil until they have come to terms with the behavior."
In other words, by denouncing his own behavior, the apologizer distances himself from it and is able to once again regard himself as in line with the society's values.
But a 2012 study turned that concept on its head, suggesting that refusing to apologize makes one feel just as good (and sometimes better) than does apologizing, according to the research.
"The act of refusing to apologize resulted in greater self-esteem than not refusing to apologize," reported the study's researchers in The European Journal of Social Psychology. "Moreover, apology refusal also resulted in increased feelings of power/control and value integrity, both of which mediated the effect of refusal on self-esteem."
Not only has 2013 seen more than its fair share of apologies, it also wrought the non-apology. Not everyone who revealed harmful beliefs or behaviors took to a press conference stage, script in hand and apology face practiced to perfection. Most recently, Fox News host Megyn Kelly has not cowed to the many people calling for her apology, after she made deeply offensive comments about the race of both Santa Claus and Jesus Christ. Instead, Kelly offered:
The fact that an offhand jest that I made during a segment about whether Santa should be replaced by a penguin has now become a national firestorm says two things: race is still an incredibly volatile issue in this country and Fox News and yours truly are big targets for many people.
Indeed, Kelly was not the first to prioritize her own sense of esteem over repairing public opinion. Chip Wilson, Lululemon’s founder and, until recently, its CEO, issued an apologetic video after public outrage over comments he made, blaming structural problems with his company’s yoga pants on female customers' body shapes. Many interpreted this video, in which Wilson said that he was “sad” about the impact of his comments on his employees, as an assertion that upset customers were the enemy and Lululemon employees, the victims.
And in another striking example, Toronto’s embattled mayor, Rob Ford, made a habit of issuing insufficient and non-apologies for bad behavior throughout his tenure. For many, the fact that he has yet to step down from his position of leadership is sufficient evidence that he doesn’t understand the depth and breadth of the havoc his erratic behavior has wrought on the city he is responsible for running.
Ford, in other words, sits at the very center of a Venn diagram, overlapping the non-apology with the bad apology. A bad apology is existent, but disingenuous and incomplete. It leaves the offended with the sense that the apologizer is being self-serving even as they cop to their bad behavior. In 2013, celebrity chef Paula Deen -- who lost several jobs and endorsements over her regular and repeated use of racial epithets and shockingly offensive nostalgia for the Antebellum South -- took to YouTube to offer her apologies. It did not sit well with critics:
“The reason I’m not buying the apology is because it is in such stark contrast to the deposition,” explained The Young Turks’ Ana Kasparian. “If you read the deposition and you get the sense that she’s so nonchalant about her usage of that type of language, especially around her employees. And to change her mind so quickly? I didn’t get the sense that she learned a lesson. I got the sense that she had a lot to lose because she is the way she is.”
Meanwhile, Lance Armstrong caught considerable grief for his apology during an Oprah Winfrey interview for, among other things, using performance enhancing drugs and abusing his teammates. John Kador, author of Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust described Armstrong’s mea culpa as “a more or less contrite explanation of his difficulties [rather] than a heartfelt public apology.”
How does one deliver a good apology? According to Beverly Engel, the author of The Power of Apology: Healing Steps to Transform All Your Relationships, a good apology involves the ‘Three Rs’: Regret, Responsibility and Remedy. One must cop to regretting the impact of one’s actions, accept the responsibility of their outcome and offer a way to remedy the damage done. A good apology is devoid of excuses and delivered with body language that conveys sincere intentions and true regret. Extra credit to those who find a more meaningful forum than Twitter to apologize.
Here’s an example of a good apology: Grist staff writer David Roberts issued a Tweet in July calling former New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner’s infamous intern, Olivia Nuzzi, a “social-climbing mercenary hobag,” much to the ire of his female readers, who felt that this critique was unnecessarily gendered. Rather than apologize via Twitter, as many public figures choose to do, Roberts wrote an entire column, acknowledging the harm he’d done and explaining in great detail and insight why he had not first seen his name-calling as offensive:
As for the “political correctness police,” well, I’m happy they got me. It sucks to think I may have lost a small measure of the respect and reputation I’ve spent years building over a stupid slip, that the stupid slip will always be with me, that at least for some subset of people it will define my social presence, however unfair that seems to me. That’s all fine. It shouldn’t be fair. There should be a high cost to it. That kind of social censure reinforces norms that badly need reinforcement in social media.
Roberts' apology brings up another feature of the public mea culpa: Does it actually make things right? Probably not, according to a 2011 study published in Psychological Science, which found that although people say they want an apology, it is ultimately unsatisfying when they receive one. As part of the study, people played a gambling game with an unseen partner. When they were swindled, they were instructed to imagine they would receive an apology -- or they were given an actual apology. Those who imagined their partner's regret were far more satisfied with the outcome than those who received one.
“I think an apology is a first step in the reconciliation process,” lead researcher David De Cremer of Erasmus University in the Netherlands said. "But you need to show that you will do something else.”
That something else might be a good intention to set for the rest of us in 2014.