I'm sorry, but you need to work on your apologies

Apologies need to go beyond just saying "I'm sorry." They must show empathy and understanding as well, writes Katie Heaney for New York Magazine.

SorryWatch is a website that was founded in 2012 by Susan McCarthy as a spinoff from a popular op-ed she wrote for Salon in 2001. The blog critiques public apologies made by well-known people like celebrities and politicians. Over the years, it has accumulated a large audience and a few pointers for what makes the best apologies, Heaney writes.

One helpful rule of thumb, for example, is that apologies should never contain the word "if." There is a big difference between saying "I apologize if what I said offended you," and "I apologize for offending you." The latter is more genuine because it assumes that there has been hurt, according to McCarthy and her co-editor, Majorie Ingall. Also, the former uses the passive voice, which McCarthy and Ignall say are an apology pet-peeve of theirs.

Over the years, SorryWatch has captured many public apologies that have resulted from public blunders. McCarthy and Ingall notice that the offenders often cast blame on a circumstance that was out of their control or try to get their audience to feel sorry for them, Heaney writes.

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For example, a television host saying that he lost sleep over something offensive that he said or did doesn't help the apology at all, according to SorryWatch. The audience is not going to suddenly say, "Oh you lost sleep, that's terrible, we forgive you." Instead, it simply takes away from the message they should be getting across, which is that they're remorseful—and that they know why they should remorseful, McCarthy says.

Beth Polin, an assistant professor of management at Eastern Kentucky University and co-author of The Art of the Apology, came up with a few tips based on a study that involved people pretending to be recruiters considering job applicants who had breached trust in the past. The pretend recruiters reviewed an apology from the job applicants and told researchers if they were convinced that the apologies merited a second chance.

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Based on that research, Polin says that these six traits made the best apologies:

  • Show some remorse, by clearly saying (or writing) the words "I'm sorry";
  • Explain, but don't over-explain, what led to the mistake;
  • Don't blame anyone else but yourself;
  • Express regret about the damage caused;
  • Say how you'll prevent the mistake from happening again; and
  • Ask to be forgiven.

In general, apologies don't have to be that complicated, Heaney writes. One apology that SorryWatch has praised is one issued on Facebook by a man who mistakenly thought that a non-veteran woman had parked in a parking lot for veterans. The man found out she was indeed a veteran because she responded to the note he left on her car.

The apology included an acknowledgement of wrong-doing, why it was wrong, and how he would be more careful next time. But most importantly, Heaney writes, it included the phrases "I'm sorry" or "I want to apologize" three times (Heaney, New York Magazine, 6/8).

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