Everywhere of late, people are saying they are sorry. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for one, after talking ill of his commander in chief. Or the BP chief executive, Tony Hayward, apologizing for the destruction caused by his company’s oil well. Or Representative Joe Barton apologizing to Hayward and then apologizing for that apology.
And these were but the most recent mea culpas (or, at least, culpas, some with very little mea). There was also the pope’s, for the pain caused to Irish parishioners by pedophile priests; Prime Minister David Cameron’s, for the murder by British soldiers of Irish protesters on Bloody Sunday 38 years ago; a Major League umpire for calling a runner safe when he should have been out in the ninth inning, thus depriving a pitcher of a perfect game; a parade of athletes and politicians for using steroids or breaking their marriage vows; and the occasional carmaker for not acting quickly enough to repair faulty systems.
All this apologizing should be good for our collective soul, allowing those who are wrong a chance to repent and those who have been wronged a change to forgive, right? Apologies, says Dr. Aaron Lazare, the former chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and author of the book “On Apology,” are “the most profound of human interactions.” When used well, the words can heal humiliation — by lifting anger and guilt and allowing splintered bonds to mend.
Or at least that’s what they are supposed to do. These days, they more often sound like parodies of their once-powerful selves, and instead of bringing solace, they tend to create more anger.
Hayward said: “I am very, very sorry that this accident occurred, very sorry. . . . And I do believe that it’s right to investigate it fully and draw the right conclusions.” But we heard this: “I am sorry it happened, sure, but I am not saying that it was anything we could have prevented.” He also said, “This is a complex accident, caused by an unprecedented combination of failures.” In other words, it wasn’t our fault.
Jennifer Robbennolt, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Illinois, calls these kinds of statements “nonapology apologies,” and they are worse, she argues, than no apology at all. In a study she has conducted, she presented test subjects with a hypothetical situation — one in which a cyclist injures a pedestrian. She then attributed one of three statements to the cyclist and asked the subjects whether the injured party should accept a proffered settlement. When a full apology was offered (“I am so sorry that you were hurt. The accident was all my fault, I was going too fast and not watching where I was going”), 73 percent of the respondents said the pedestrian should be willing to accept the settlement. When no apology was offered, 52 percent said the pedestrian should settle. And when only a partial apology was offered (“I am so sorry that you were hurt, and I really hope that you feel better soon”), 35 percent opted for a settlement.
So what does a successful apology sound like? Much like that of Robbennolt’s first cyclist’s — an expression of regret, an assumption of full responsibility. It also helps to put forward a plan for preventing similar mistakes in the future. In business, the Tylenol poisoning case of 1982 is still the gold standard. James Burke, the chief executive of Johnson & Johnson, stepped up and took the blame, promising to recall all Tylenol products and create tamper-resistant packaging. Two years ago, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia also successfully apologized when he expressed deep regret over past wrongs against the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, specifically the removal of children from their parents. A less well known example was a decision the chief of staff at the Veteran’s Affairs medical center in Lexington, Ky., made a couple of decades ago when postmortem clinical tests showed that an elderly patient died because of a hospital error. The family would never have known but for the fact that the hospital contacted them and admitted its mistake. The family was offered an apology and also compensation and a plan of how internal procedures would change to prevent the same thing from happening to others.
In short, the hospital took a risk. Apologizing in spite of the fact that it could get you in deeper legal or personal trouble seems to be a key difference between a compelling show of regret and a confounding one. In admitting, “I just cost that kid a perfect game,” Jim Joyce, the umpire, risked added humiliation. Describing the Bloody Sunday massacre as “both unjustified and unjustifiable,” Cameron took the chance that he might reignite the political tinderbox of Northern Ireland.
The fact that Joyce was forgiven by the pitcher he wronged and that Cameron was cheered on the streets of Derry and that malpractice lawsuits actually decreased under the new full-disclosure-and-apology policy at the V.A. hospital in Kentucky shows the effectiveness of a sincere apology. But these are not magic incantations that you can recite and then be done. Would these words have sounded as sincere in the absence of risk? Or is it the vulnerability entwined with the words that makes an apology ring true?
That question is being explored now in medicine. A number of states have passed laws making a doctor’s apology inadmissible as evidence in a lawsuit, in keeping with the belief that patients find solace when a doctor admits a mistake, and that doctors are more likely to do so if they are taking part in a conversation and not making a confession. These laws might well free doctors to speak more honestly with patients and families and allow for a chance to truly repair their relationship. Or they might have the opposite effect entirely. With less at stake for the doctors, could apologies become pro forma and, as a result, less powerful?
When an apology fails, two things are lost — the victims are not asked for forgiveness, nor are they given a chance to grant it. Being asked to forgive restores dignity to the injured. Granting forgiveness is a step toward moving on. A botched apology not only taints the act of apology but the ability to accept an apology as well. And that is unforgivable.