Move over, Movember. Men's health no longer has exclusive dibs on the month of November. It's now the month for apologies, too. Say hello to Mea-culp-ember!
This week has seen a bumper crop of "my bads." First, President Obama apologized to Americans who received cancelation notices from their health insurance companies. Then, the Patriot-News of Central Pennsylvania apologized for an editorial it published 150 years ago that characterized President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as "silly remarks." (And, of course, there's the apology issued by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford for his offensive comments. But I think I'll write about Ford in May when it's mental health month.)
Do the mea culpas issued by Obama and the Patriot-News pass the redress test? In order to answer that question, a quick review of the rules governing apologies is in order.
To actually count as apology rather than a fauxpology, the communication must adhere to the following guidelines:
It must be unequivocal. In other words, you have to actually say you're sorry for what you said or did. You don't get any points for an "apology" that makes clear that you believe you don't have anything to apologize for or that the party to whom you're "apologizing" is just being extra sensitive.
A good example of a fauxpology is Rush Limbaugh's statement in the aftermath of calling law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" because she supported the idea of requiring health insurance plans to cover contraceptives. Limbaugh issued his fauxpology in an attempt to halt the exodus of sponsors from his radio show. In his statement, Limbaugh said he "chose the wrong words" and "didn't mean a personal attack," but then went on for several sentences about how irresponsible and un-American the idea of requiring insurance companies to cover birth control actually is. I'm sure Ms. Fluke was deeply moved by his obvious sincerity.
In other words, DO say:
"I am sorry for [fill in the blank]. I realize it was [hurtful/untrue/inaccurate/rude]. I regret [saying/doing] it."
(Translation: I screwed up. My bad. I'm sorry.)
"I'm sorry if you misunderstood what I meant and if you then took offense or got your feelings hurt. Of course, I didn't mean it that way at all."
(Translation: The problem was on your end, not mine. You're super-sensitive. But hey, I'm sorry you've got substandard wiring. Life must be extra hard for you.)
It must be public. If you issue a private apology to someone but you won't publicly own up to your mistake, this simply adds insult to injury. That's exactly what Lance Armstrong did to Betsy Andreu, wife of Armstrong's former teammate, Frankie Andreu. After years of making the Andreus' lives a living hell, Armstrong apologized to Betsy for his behavior. But when it came to the crux of Armstrong's vendetta against Betsy -- her statement that she had been present in Armstrong's hospital room in 1996 when he admitted to his doctor that he had used performance-enhancing drugs -- Armstrong refused to publicly admit that she was telling the truth all along.
That's the kind of apology that doesn't really count for much. It says "Hey, between you and me, we both know I lied about you and publicly dragged you through the mud to protect my own reputation. Sorry! But while I was perfectly willing to trash you publicly, I'm not prepared to apologize publicly. So...we're good now, right?"
It must be timely. Once you realize you screwed up, your obligation to apologize is triggered. The longer it takes you to get around to it, the more points you lose. Because a fauxpology does not count as a real apology (and often compounds the injury thereby creating a new infraction to apologize for) the issuance of one does not stop the clock.
So, while Rush Limbaugh promptly issued a statement that he called an apology, the fact that his statement made clear that he only regretted at most two words of his entire tirade, the meter for his apology to Fluke continues to run. When it comes to overdue apologies, there are penalties and interest to consider. And the penalty for failing to timely issue an apology can be a lack of interest on the part of the public in anything you have to say in the future (Lance Armstrong, I'm looking at you).
If humor is employed it must be at the expense of the one issuing the apology. Humor is not always appropriate in apologies. If you ran over someone's cat, for example, there's no place for humor in your apology--even if it's at your own expense. ("Sorry I ran over your cat! I guess it's true what they say about women drivers, after all! At least all the cats in Saudi Arabia are safe...for now!")
But in cases where grief isn't involved, and you're apologizing for bungling something rather than betraying someone, a little self-deprecating humor can go a long way. ("Sorry I stood you up! I totally had our lunch down on my calendar for next week, not this week. Next time lunch is on me -- but if you want me to deliver on that promise, you might want to pick me up rather than meet me there.")
When it comes to scoring an apology, whether it's unequivocal, public, and timely each count for a third of the total possible points. Humor only counts as possible extra credit.
In light of these rules, how do the apologies issued by President Obama and the Patriot-News rate?
President Obama's Apology. When discussing the policy cancelations, President Obama used terms like "sorry," "deeply regret," and "that's on me." He didn't qualify his apology by saying that the reason that the policies were canceled is because they are substandard and that the Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to provide these folks with coverage actually worth paying for (which is true, by the way). He didn't try to shift the blame by pointing out that the ACA doesn't actually prohibit insurance companies from renewing substandard policies until after January 1, 2014, but the insurance companies decided to begin declining to renew them earlier anyway (also true).
No, he owned up, no strings attached. He said he made a statement that turned out to be not true. He said he understood that it is scary to get a cancelation notice. And he apologized. Obama's apology gets full points for being unequivocal.
President Obama issued his apology at the White House in front of a room full of journalists, which earns it full points for being made publicly.
The problem with policy cancelations began to come to light a few weeks ago. Given that this is a complex problem and the administration had to assess whether it could craft a solution, the apology still counts as being timely-ish.
And while he didn't employ any humor, that of course doesn't count against him. After all, there's really nothing funny about substandard insurance policies or cancelation notices.
On a scale of 100, I give President Obama's apology a 90. He gets full points for the apology being unequivocal and public, he loses ten points for timeliness, and he gets no extra credit points for humor.
The Patriot-News's Apology. From the opening words of this apology ("Seven score and ten years ago...") it's clear that the reader is in for a treat. But the playful tone would strike a sour note if the publication failed to take full responsibility for its mistake. It dodges this bullet by explaining that "the forefathers of this media institution brought forth to its audience a judgment so flawed, so tainted by hubris, so lacking in the perspective history would bring, that it cannot remain unaddressed in our archives." And since the apology was published in the newspaper, you can't get any more public than that.
But there is one huge shortcoming with this otherwise flawless apology. It took 150 years for the paper to get around to issuing it. That means not only was it not issued by the person responsible for initial wrong, anybody offended by it is long gone, too.
But alas, better late than never.
All in all, this apology earns a score of 91. It gets full points for being unequivocal and public. It gets zero points for being timely. Without the extra credit points for being funny, its score would be a lousy 66. But the humor is so brilliant that it garners the apology an extra 25 points.
I can hardly wait to see what the rest of Mea-culp-ember will bring. After all, we still have a couple of weeks to go and Rob Ford is still mayor of Toronto...for now.