6 Types of Apologies That Aren't Apologies at All
With everyone's every deed made public on the Internet these days, we've suddenly all developed a lot more to apologize for. But we haven't actually gotten any sorrier, so all that means is that the number of fake apologies have gone up. And we've started to develop some pretty universal techniques for "apologizing" without really apologizing.
Here's some of the most common offenders.
"I Deeply Regret"
One of the popular go-to phrases is "I deeply regret ..." It's such a useful tool in the unapologetic person's arsenal because it doesn't require you to admit you did anything wrong. I don't know if it's technically correct, but it's common to send "regrets" to a friend whose loved one has just died, and nobody takes it as an admission that you were responsible for their uncle's death.
Chairman Steven H. Davis made use of the phrase to sound vaguely sorry after causing the collapse of his law firm, while claiming he had nothing to do with said collapse. "A dispassionate and disinterested review of the facts will confirm that I have not engaged in any misconduct," he said. "I did my best to navigate the firm through challenging and turbulent times, and I deeply regret our current situation." He doesn't know how the company ended up going down the drain; he is just shaking his head sadly with the rest of you in sympathy, like if your uncle had died.
Deep regrets also often go hand-in-hand with the good old "if," where you totally would be sorry if you had, hypothetically, done something bad (but you didn't). The mayor of Sunland Park, New Mexico, apologized by saying, "If I ever let [the citizens of Sunland Park] down in any way, I deeply regret it." Which is, to be fair, a big if, because all he's really admitted to was being so drunk while signing city contracts that he didn't know what they were, which he apparently thought would be a clever excuse to avoid paying the company he signed the contract with.
"If I tell them I was passing-out drunk, they'll have to let me keep all this! It's foolproof!"
So the guy either has a serious alcohol problem that interferes with his work, or he's retarded, or, more likely, both. Does this constitute "letting the voters down"? Who knows? Let's throw an "if" in there to be safe. And if he has completely deflated some voters' faith in their civic government? Is he sorry for what he's done? Ouch, that's a little strong. Best to go with "deeply regret."
People who deeply regret things often are pretty hazy on the specifics of what they did. When the U.S. General Services Administration got called on the carpet for spending over $800,000 on a Vegas trip, agency head Martha Johnson personally apologized to "the American people" for "the entire situation," which could technically refer to anything from the recession to global warming.
Or the Miami Heat forming a superteam?
Then she pulled out the old "deeply regret," deeply regretting that "the exceedingly good work of the GSA has been besmirched," and that she lost her job, ignoring that anyone upset enough to want an apology probably didn't give two shits about the good name of the GSA or her losing her job. Maybe something along the lines of "I'm sorry I spent your taxes on a mind reader, that was pretty dumb" would have gone over better.
Related: Happy Birthday, Badass - August 6
"Mistakes Were Made"
For those who feel that "deeply regret" is admitting too much responsibility, they can upgrade to "mistakes were made," the highest level of non-apology, used at the highest levels of government. Presidents as diverse as Reagan and Clinton have used the phrase, which one-ups "deeply regret" by not only leaving it open whether they are actually the culprit but existentially questioning whether there even is one.
"If a mistake was made in a forest, with no one around ..."
All agree that mistakes were made, but by whom? God? The universe? Can we ever really know? Isn't it a waste of taxpayer dollars to launch a special investigation into something that can never really be answered? Shouldn't we leave it up to the philosophers?
What's next, appointing a special counsel to discover what happened to the wonder of childhood?
When Reagan acknowledges that "mistakes were made" in the Iran-Contra affair, he takes the extra step of vowing that he will "get to the bottom of this" and "take whatever action is called for," which is eerily similar to O.J.'s vow to find the real murderer.
Some people like to frame this as a trend of our modern culture shifting away from accepting responsibility, but it's worth noting that the phrase is at least as old as Ulysses S. Grant, who said in his 1876 State of the Union address that "Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit," but also that "It is not necessarily evidence of blunder on the part of the Executive."
And I wouldn't be surprised if Adam and Eve told God that "Apples were eaten," or if Cain had shrugged and said, "Brothers get killed." Hey, it does happen.
Apologizing for Someone Else
I wouldn't think I would have to explain this, but apparently some people require it: You can only apologize for yourself. Maybe there are some gray areas, like apologizing symbolically for a group you are part of, but you sure as hell should not be apologizing for the person you are apologizing to.
"I'm genuinely sorry that you are such a possessive bitch."
This happens all the time, often in a fairly harmless attempt to save a little face, like in a sports discussion. "Jeff, I think a lot of folks misunderstood that statement, and for that I apologize." Maybe he really meant that folks misunderstood because "I worded things badly" or "I shouldn't have said X" and thought it would be implied, but he never actually takes anything back, so I don't know.
But that's just a bit of language hedging we're probably all guilty of. Sometimes people are a lot more deliberate about pointing the finger at other people, like the pastor who advised parents to punch their gay children. He later said, "I apologize to anyone I have unintentionally offended. I did not say anything to intentionally offend anyone in the LGBT community ... It is unfortunate I was not more careful and deliberate. I can understand how these words could be misunderstood without the context of years of ministering to the people of God at Berean Baptist Church. I have received nothing but notes of appreciation and support from the people within the church."
"When I preached to the choir, they surprisingly all agreed with me! It's really rare, right? That's what the saying means?"
He could have stopped at the first couple of sentences and it would have been an apology (though probably an unsatisfactory one to most people), but he really sticks his foot in his mouth by going on to say that the apology is only needed for people who don't really get what he is saying, and all the people who get it (the people in his church) are appreciative. So he really didn't say anything wrong, because the smart people get it. What he is sorry about is that you offended morons do not have the years of experience to understand it.
Ingrid Newkirk of PETA was even more blatant about it. After an ad campaign comparing animal cruelty today to the Holocaust, Newkirk wrote a statement of "apology" where there was about one paragraph of apology and the rest was basically, "I KNOW LOTS OF JEWS THAT WERE FINE WITH IT!" to the point where the main message wasn't anything like "We shouldn't have done this campaign," but actually "If you were offended, and none of these real Jews were, what does that say about you?" It was basically a passive-aggressive attempt to shame anyone offended by the campaign by accusing them of hyperbolic fake outrage about something "real Jews" don't even have a problem with.
Everyone knows you are immune from accusations of racism as long as you are touching a member of that group.
Probably one of the ballsiest variations is apologizing for a completely unrelated third party, as Congressman Joe Barton did to BP. After BP's Gulf oil disaster, the White House asked BP to pony up some money for cleanup because, you know, that sort of makes sense. This made Joe Barton livid, saying he was "ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday," despite not working in that branch of government at all, and "I'm only speaking for myself. I'm not speaking for anyone else, but I apologize. I do not want to live in a country where anytime a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong, [it is] subject to some sort of political pressure that, again, in my words, amounts to a shakedown."
It takes a lot of balls to say "only speaking for myself" while "apologizing" for something his political enemy just did yesterday. That is like the CEO of McDonald's holding a press conference to "apologize" for how tasteless and bland Burger King burgers are. "I am sorry to every American who had to eat what is basically processed cardboard."
"Sorry" Used as Punctuation
Public personalities are usually smart enough (or well-managed enough) not to carelessly throw "apology" words around as meaningless punctuation, but it's something you commonly see among regular folks, especially during a rant. "OK, I'm sorry, but your YouTube video was a piece of shit. Apologies to everyone I've offended by using the word 'shit,' but sometimes you have to call a shit sandwich a shit sandwich, pardon my French."
OK, enough about Burger King.
It's really easy to throw in three apologies that you don't even mean to be taken as apologies. Some people just spasm them in like "you know" or "um" or "like." It's not really deceptive, but it's annoying, because apology words are becoming so meaningless already due to liars and sneaky people. Careless people tossing "sorry" and "apologies" around like word poop aren't really helping.
Sometimes it's just a reflex, like this one Letters-to-the-Editor writer reacting to someone upset at his last letter. He says, "My sincerest apologies," because I guess that's what he automatically says when someone gets mad at him, like kicking when the doctor hits your kneecap. Then he rips the guy apart and insists he was totally right. I don't know if he should be sorry or not (I don't know what their boring argument is about), but he sure isn't. I think he just blurted out "apologies" like a cough.
And this guy is definitely not sorry at all:
"I'm sorry if this offends anyone" has sort of turned into a slang phrase that really means, "All right, sheeple, get ready for the edgy truth I'm about to lay down!" Unlike the politicians and weaselly types, they don't even intend to deceive you; this is just a new slang use of language, like when people decided to use "bad" to mean "good" or "sick" to mean "awesome." Unfortunately, not everyone has gotten the memo on the cool kids' slang these days, so quite often anyone using this kind of language just comes across as a very stupid person trying to trick you.
And it's fair to be confused, because some people out there actually are very stupid people trying to trick you. Take this Rhodes scholar:
The Aryan Brotherhood bit had me wondering if this was a troll, but apparently this poster has made over 200 posts on that anime forum, mostly not about hating Asians. In any case, you've probably seen or heard people sincerely say they're sorry if anyone is offended, then spew the most insane, spite-filled, eyebrow-raising racist/sexist/anti-religion rant you've ever heard, and then bookend it with another assurance that they're really sorry and don't want to offend anyone. And they really expect immunity with those words, like this is a playground and they just touched base or called "no backsies."
Whether that poster is for real or not, the more depressing thing is that this continues to work on some people, as you can see in a response defending that poster:
"Hey, he said TWICE he didn't want to offend anyone, so we're not allowed to be offended no matter how much he talks about Asians needing a good beating to learn their place."
People apologize ahead of time not only for what they're going to say, but also for what they're going to do. One Farmington school board member got caught emailing on his phone during school board meetings and apologized by saying, "It's going to happen and I'm sorry if it bothers you." He is just going to keep emailing while they are talking about whatever they are talking about, but he said he was sorry first, so I'm sure they will have to get off his back.
Apologizing for a Completely Different Thing
Another great tactic that works when people are tired of vague apologies is to apologize in detail and take full responsibility -- for something completely different.
"I'm sorry for not doing my homework. I'll go do it right now!"
USC football coach Lane Kiffin got in hot water for publicly criticizing referees, and finally apologized -- for being too nice to reporters. "I am sorry that all this happened, and I've learned from this. I've learned that regardless of questions I can't answer any questions that have to do with calls from any games or any conversation that ... an official has with me. From here on out, I won't be able to respond to any of that."
He created a nice little story where it sounded like reporters had asked him about something (the referees' judgment) that he wasn't allowed to talk about, and because he is such a nice, naive guy who doesn't know any better, he talked about it to help out the reporters. His fault was being too nice and trusting the reporters too much. Actually, he was the first person to bring it up, ranting about the referees' terrible call right after the game, unprompted, until a school spokesperson told him to move on.
I know it probably comes as a surprise, but Lane Kiffin ends up having to apologize a lot. Google it.
Another common theme is when someone caught in wrongdoing apologizes for being a "distraction" to their team or company, and not for raping the person or stealing the money or whatever. After it came up that Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson falsely claimed to have a degree in computer science, he apologized -- not for claiming the nonexistent degree, but for "how the issue has affected the company," and how it's not helping the company "move forward."
Or look at Enron's Jeffrey Skilling, apologizing for some serious corporate malfeasance that destroyed thousands of people's retirements: "I am devastated by and apologetic about what Enron has come to represent." Not that Enron has done any bad deeds, but that people, for some inexplicable reason, now think of bad things when they happen to think of Enron, and of course Skilling goes on to say he never did anything wrong. I hope it makes you feel better to know that he was convicted of 19 counts of securities fraud and other charges.
Awww, poor baby.
Meanwhile, Tigers outfielder Delmon Young got arrested for a drunken fight where he was yelling anti-Semitic slurs, and got hauled out for the requisite apologies. He apologized to his teammates, the team owners, the entire Detroit Tigers organization, his family and Tigers fans. Conspicuously missing were the people he called "fucking Jews" and/or tried to beat up.
So he wasn't sorry for tackling a guy while shouting ethnic slurs, just sorry that it ended up embarrassing his team. Priorities, right?
So I'm sorry if any of those hit too close to home, I mean, what can I say, I SPEAK THE TRUTH and I'm sorry if it makes some of you uncomfortable. No, I'm just kidding. I'm sorry about the cutesy twist ending, though.
For more from Christina, check out 5 Reasons Why Anticonformity Is Worse Than Conformity and 5 Topics Guaranteed to Elicit (Condescending) Advice.