Everyone hates non-apology apologies.
You know what I mean. “I’m sorry if I did anything wrong,” or “I’m sorry if you were offended.” (No admission of guilt, just an “if.”) Or “I’m sorry you felt hurt,” or “I’m sorry if you think I did something wrong.” (It’s guilt-shifting: I didn’t do anything wrong; you’re the one who’s wrong to feel or think that way.) Or “I’m sorry, but you started it,” or “I’m sorry, but what I said was true.” (There was a good reason, so I didn’t really do anything wrong.) And there are the side-stepping apologies that merely express regret, and also the justifying (“I was just kidding”) and phantom (“I guess I owe you an apology”) ones.
My question (to which I don’t have an answer) is, if everyone hates non-apology apologies, why do some people keep making them? See, for example, Rep. Ted Yoho’s recent non-apology apology to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for his vile words to her on the steps of the Capitol and Thom Brennaman’s recent non-apology apology for his anti-gay comment.
Many years ago, my father gave me some advice about turning down requests. “Just say, very politely of course, that you’re sorry you can’t do it. Don’t give a reason why. Short and simple.” “Why?” I asked. “Because,” he responded, “if you give a reason, the person making the request will have a dozen reasons why yours is no good.”
It was, like almost all of my father’s advice, wise. And sometime later I realized that for pragmatic reasons, his advice worked for apologies as well. I remember the first time I used it with a friend I wronged. “I’m really sorry I did such and such,” I said. “I was wrong and I hope I won’t do anything like that again.” I could see he was ready to say something negative about what I did but he hesitated because there really wasn’t much left to say except “I forgive you (this time).” Which he did.
“Hmmm,” I thought. “That’s really a great way to apologize.” And it’s also effective as long as you truly mean it; insincerity is easily detected. So I’d give myself a B in apologizing. Recently, though, someone showed me an A apology.
The setting is a large institution that I won’t name, and the main player is its CEO, whose identity I’m also keeping secret. But the underlying facts are completely accurate.
First the background. During the coronavirus crisis, some employees of one of the organization’s departments performed exemplary services in connection with a particular event. They didn’t go the proverbial extra mile; they ran an additional marathon. And it was simply ignored. No one thanked them, complimented them, or showed any appreciation for, or recognition of, their efforts and accomplishments.
Several weeks later, these employees and others had a meeting with the CEO about coronavirus-related issues. In the midst of their discussion the CEO mentioned the need for all employees to support one another during this difficult time. A bit later in the meeting, when the CEO asked for suggestions for improving morale, one brave employee raised the extra work that some had done in connection with the event, referred to the CEO’s comments about support, and noted that no support or recognition had been given to those employees by the top levels of the organization. It was both insensitive and hurt morale. The matter was then dropped and the meeting continued on to other topics.
But it wasn’t forgotten. The very next day, the following email, over the CEO’s signature, went to all members of the department:
“Yesterday, in one of my meetings, we were discussing various topics and [the extra work done by members of your department in connection with the event] was among them. It was pointed out that I did not say anything about this. That is a true statement and for that, I want to sincerely apologize to each and every one of you. My failure to communicate my great appreciation for your efforts was unintentional and I hope you will all forgive me.
“Please know that I admire and am grateful for all you did for our organization and I recognize how much work and effort went into making this event successful.”
Notice what this CEO did.
1. He didn’t take credit for realizing his error by himself but was honest in noting the need to have his mistake pointed out to him.
2. He admitted his error without ifs, guilt-shifting, justifications, or side-stepping.
3. He didn’t regret; he apologized.
4. He sent the apology to all members of the department, not just to the employees whose efforts he had failed to recognize.
5. And significantly, he rectified his error, giving the employees the recognition and support they earned and deserved with a sincerity that was evident to all.
An almost flawless apology. As I said, he earned an A (perhaps even an A+).
As I was writing this on Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the 40-day period of introspection and teshuva (repentance) that culminates in Yom Kippur, it occurred to me that apologies really are a form of repentance. Thus, the teshuva instructions Maimonides codified in his Laws of Repentance apply in large part to apologies. Indeed, the CEO’s email reads as if before he sent it, he had reviewed those laws carefully.
Rambam requires vidui, articulated confession, and wasn’t that exactly what the public email was? Other teshuva requirements, like recognition of the error, regret, and acceptance of better behavior in the future, also are explicit and implicit in the email. And lastly, Rambam notes at the beginning of Chapter 2 of this section of his code that teshuva is complete when someone is presented with the same challenge, and recognizing his prior mistake, acts properly. Here, the CEO, in his first opportunity to address the entire department, did not repeat his mistake but rather publicly recognized the extraordinary actions of his employees.
I don’t know how Rambam was as a grader, but I give the CEO an A in repentance as well as in apologies.
So, whether you apologize or repent, to paraphrase Nike, just do it — and drop the non.