Why it’s Hard to Say Sorry and Mean it?

In a recent guest essay in the New York Times, Elizabeth Spiers taps into a subject we at Orwell Grey know a lot about by asking “why is it so hard to say sorry convincingly and mean it?” While she offers some good counsel on what an effective apology looks like, she spends her time chastising her subjects for their apologies rather than trying to answer her own question.

The answer she spends no time seeking is that it’s hard to genuinely apologize when you don’t believe you have done anything wrong.

People, generally, are predisposed to keeping themselves safe and angst-free. Psychologically, apologies are uncomfortable because they require an admission of error or wrongdoing. Apologies are hard to offer in the best of times.

What’s more, cancel culture has made the offering of a genuine apology more complex and even dangerous. I wrote about apologies in The Cancel Culture Curse.

On the one hand, our society’s tendency toward outrage means we generally apply disproportionate pressure against those with whom we disagree. We don’t allow people to have a different opinion or take an action we might not choose. If we wouldn’t do it, but they do, they should be damned. No latitude or leniency is offered.

To save face, careers, sponsorships, or friends, objects of cancel culture often do what’s necessary to make it all go away: apologize. To no surprise, their apologies, which they certainly would not be offering but for being forced to do so, are delivered with far less sincerity than Ms. Spiers would prefer.

Key elements in all cancel culture attacks are moral absolutism and a sense of certitude. Those engaging in cancel culture are confident they have all the information they need to render a judgment.

Ms. Spiers approaches her subjects in this essay with the same moral absolutism and certitude. She exhibits no humility when she criticizes those about whom she writes. She is right. They are wrong, and they should apologize.

For example, Ms. Spiers criticizes Drew Barrymore for the apology she offered in response to accusations that she was turning her back on the writers’ strike by allowing The Drew Barrymore Show to air. The situation is complex and requires nuance and humility.

Barrymore originally made the case that she had grippers, lighting engineers, sound engineers, and other essential personnel for whom her show was responsible. That was a noble and reasonable position for Ms. Barrymore to take.

Ms. Barrymore’s guilt lies not in her apology but in that she apologized at all. She offered a discombobulated apology because she was pressured into backtracking from her original position. Barrymore likely felt extreme pressure to disfavor her working staff and favor the non-working writers.

Ms. Spiers’ critique seemingly ignores this conflict entirely. A more nuanced and humble inquiry would have considered Barrymore’s responsibility to protect her working employees. Wouldn’t this perspective change how one views Ms. Barrymore’s apology and warrant a more sympathetic response to her delivery?

Not for Ms. Spiers who wonders, “So, why couldn’t she offer a better apology?”

In other cases, she assumes people are guilty with no proof and then criticizes them for not apologizing for the infraction she assumes they are guilty of. Take Russell Brand, for instance, about whom she writes, “When four women accused the charismatic provocateur Russell Brand of sexual assault, he denied any fault and claimed to be the victim of a coordinated media attack.” Well, yes, that’s what you do when you are refuting allegations.

If Mr. Brand is found guilty, he should then issue a resolute and sincere apology, replete with all the features Ms. Spiers suggests: acknowledge the harm done, focus on the object of your harm not yourself, vow never to commit the transgression again, and seek to repair what has been done.

However, if you do not believe you have committed a wrong, then it’s your expected right to defend yourself and prove your innocence. This often precludes apologizing. In Brand’s case, no one knows the full set of facts. So, no one should claim to know that he’s innocent or guilty of the allegations

Ms. Spiers raises a good question, “why is it so hard to say sorry convincingly and mean it.” Unfortunately, she spends no time seeking to understand why those she criticizes fail to offer an apology that meets her approval.

She exemplifies a key element of cancel culture, which is to approach a situation with certitude rather than curiosity and humility. Instead of certitude, start with the assumption that you do not have all the information to render a judgement, and promise to adhere to Stephen Covey’s Habit #5: Seek to understand before being understood.

For anyone in a position of being pressured to apologize publicly, keep in mind these eight rules:

1. Apologize only when you know you have committed a wrong
2. Never apologize unless you mean it
3. Know exactly why you are apologizing
4. Identify to whom you are apologizing
5. Offer a genuine apology
6. Do not make the apology about yourself
7. Vow never to transgress again in the same way
8. Work to repair the relationship

If you would like to learn more about Orwell Grey Strategic Communications, please drop us a line.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.