The #MeToo movement and appearances before Congress by tech industry leaders such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have put a spotlight on public apologies. Lisa Leopold is an expert on apologies—both public and private—and an associate professor and coordinator for the Middlebury Institute’s English for Academic and Professional Purposes Program. She gave a presentation on her research on October 5 at Middlebury College in Vermont. Here she discusses it in a Q&A.
1. What are the basic ingredients of a real apology?
A 1981 study that remains relevant today identified the following strategies: an expression of apology, acknowledgement of the blame, explanation for why the situation occurred, offer of repair, and promise of nonrecurrence. Another study found that apologies that acknowledge the wrongdoing, express remorse, and offer compensation are more likely to be effective than those that do not.
2. What makes an apology fake?
Many features make it insincere, including a failure to specifically name the transgression while apologizing; apologizing for something other than the main offense; a conditional apology (e.g., “I apologize if I offended anybody by that”); the inclusion of the word “but” to continue with an explanation after the apology; and the passive voice.
Some celebrity apologies have been criticized for diverting attention to other issues when apologizing—for example, Harvey Weinstein in his apology said he was going to direct his anger to the NRA, and Kevin Spacey, in his apology, made an announcement about his sexual orientation.
3. What are some examples of bad public apologies?
Even a less-than-perfect apology may be better than no apology at all. That said, here are a few examples that could benefit from a bit of improvement:
- “For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness and I will work to do better.” (Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook)
Note that Zuckerberg distances himself from the transgression by using the passive “for the ways my work was used to divide people” as though he has no control over that.
- “For any women from my past who I may have offended, I sincerely apologize. I am still evolving.” (Russell Simmons, record producer)
Note how Simmons uses the modal “may,” which ultimately weakens the remorse he is showing. The line “I am still evolving” may be seen as a very poor explanation to justify the action. The apology is issued for potentially offending women rather than for the actual transgression.
4. What are some of the most common mistakes people make when they apologize?
One of the serious mistakes is not using the appropriate strategy for the recipient they are issuing the apology to. Researchers have found that we are not all alike in our apology preferences. In one survey, 10 percent of the people favored restitution—they wanted the transgressor to ask them what to do to correct this mistake. Ten percent favored genuine repentance—they wanted to know the offender’s plan to correct this mistake. But the vast majority—40 percent and 37 percent, respectively—wanted to hear expressions of regret and acceptance of responsibility with words such as “I was wrong.”
5. What are some words that strengthen an apology?
Certain intensifiers such as “so,” “very,” “truly,” “sincerely,” “extremely,” or “awfully” in front of the word “sorry” or words such as “utmost” or “heartfelt” in front of the word “apology” can strengthen it. Similarly, when expressing regret, if you “deeply” regret something, that will sound stronger than if you just “regret” it. Saying you are “completely” wrong intensifies an apology, and admitting wrongdoing with the active, rather than passive, voice shows you are claiming more responsibility.
6. What do people sometimes overlook in an apology?
What is missing is as important as what is contained in it. That is, does the offender apologize for the complete offense or only for part of it? Does the offender apologize to all victims, or only to some?
7. How did you first become interested in apologies?
Apologies are extremely high-stakes and very important in personal and business communication. I wanted to help the international graduate students I teach acquire the sophisticated skill needed to write effective apologies for a U.S. audience.
I also wanted to enhance my own understanding of what makes an apology effective when communicating with people in the U.S. and with people from diverse cultural backgrounds. For example, I found it fascinating to learn that Americans strongly prefer expressions of regret, whereas Russians show a strong preference for requests for forgiveness when apologizing.