Really, Really Sorry

Before you give your next apology, consider some recent results of saying sorry.

After apologizing for his prime minister, an Australian was suddenly forced off-line. In Las Vegas a man who apologized was arrested and extradited. And Ohio teenagers – scheduled to court-ordered public apologies – were stopped by death threats.

Even Japanese, perhaps the most apologetic people on earth, now often refuse to do so at all when in the US for fear of legal liability. In short, the climate of the apology has been changing across much of the developed world.

The pressures against apologies are growing perhaps most in the lawyer-overrun environment of North America.

How strong are these pressures? What is the state of the common apology today? And what are the consequences of apologizing in this environment?

Apology is generally defined as an expression of regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another, and at other times as a defense, excuse or justification for some action.

Most people in Western cultures expect a true apology to contain several key elements, namely: a confession of error, a sincere statement of sorrow over hurt caused, a request for forgiveness, reparations for the error, and a sincere promise to not repeat the error.

But the risks of saying sorry are rising. Chief among these: civil and criminal liability.

In response to these risks, a Canadian province and 20 American states now enforce apology laws to protect people whose apologies might otherwise lead to them to court.

High profile and celebrity apologies – crafted by behind-the-scenes publicity professionals – have been mutating the most. Some have changed so much that all key elements of expressing regret are totally missing. But even among people who must craft their own apologies, the common folk, styles of apology have changed.

For example, young people who run afoul of the law are often expected to make direct apologies. Ohio teenagers pleaded guilty to delinquency charges in damaging two US flags. They had been sentenced to deliver apologies at Veterans Day services. But when a murder plot against them was discovered in an Internet chat room, their appearance was canceled. In its place the apology was simply printed in the local newspaper.

Apologies mixed with satire tend to unsettle those in power. The Australian mentioned set up a spoof apology web site for Prime Minister John Howard. It received 10,000 visits its first day, and also attracted a rapid response from the Australian Federal Police. Then – though no charges were filed – suddenly and without announcement the parody site was disconnected by its private domain registrar.

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No one says sorry more often, more quickly and in more different ways than the Japanese. If you live in Japan, you realize that hundreds of automatic apologies are needed to keep daily life going smoothly. But when they visit the US these days many Japanese have become terrified of potential lawsuits in a country where expressing regret or concern over a fender-bender can be interpreted as admitting legal culpability.

On the other hand, apologies have pop up where you least expect them. A Colorado resident reported to police that he had been clubbed by a nighttime intruder with a baseball bat. The assailant apparently realized too late that he had come to the wrong house. He proceeded to apologize to the resident and explain his mistake. But just as suddenly it was back to business, and a battle ensued before the intruder finally fled with an accomplice.

Of course some apologies just lack credibility. This is especially true in those arising from criminal activity. In the state of Delaware a person halfway through the medical process of transsexual transformation pleaded guilty to writing counterfeit checks to fund some remaining surgeries. This person – accused of writing 300 bogus checks – offered the judge the following contrition: “I apologized to myself, my family, and I apologize to the court. I realize it was wrong..I made a mistake, as we all do. I’m a good person who made a bad mistake.” This apology might have helped until the prosecutor pointed out, “It was 300 mistakes.”

The case didn’t stop there. After passing 54 additional bad checks, this person was arrested again, still halfway through the medical process.

And finally, some apologies just can’t bring you redemption, no matter how hard you try. In fact sometimes an apology just makes things worse. Consider the Las Vegas man who had worked part way through the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step Program. He made it as far as Step 9. This instructed him to find persons he had harmed and to make direct amends to them. Twenty years before at a Virgina college fraternity party he had raped a woman. The man contacted her and apologized, saying he was haunted by his actions, and wanted to atone.

They exchanged several email messages, but in the end his description of the incident upset her. She called the police, and he was left to finish Steps 10, 11 and 12 in prison.

Be careful what you apologize for.

More from Joseph JK . . .