You apologize because you hurt someone. That’s why you do it.
Within that, there are three basic reasons to apologize:
- You did something wrong and it hurt people.
- You did something right, but
- it hurt people unnecessarily.
- even though it was necessary to hurt people, you still empathize with them.
In each case, the apology is about taking responsibility for the fact that you hurt people.
For apologies to work, you have to own your role in the hurt, acknowledge it, and apologize for it. And then you work to avoid doing it again.
The non-apology apology
People and organizations often offer non-apology apologies. They sound sort of like this:
- “We sincerely regret if we inadvertently offended anyone”
by publishing a racist political cartoon about Barack Obama and watermelon,
Boston Herald, 10/1/2014.
- “Our intent was not to offend”
by making fun of Jennifer Lawrence’s stolen nude photographs and using them to try to sell airline tickets,
Spirit Airlines, 9/6/2014.
These ‘apologies’ fail because they aren’t taking responsibility for the fact that people actually were offended. They don’t own their role in causing hurt. They certainly don’t give you reason to trust that these groups will change their behavior. They are not really apologies.
There’s no role for if in an apology. “I’m sorry if I offended you”? If you aren’t sure whether you offended me, why are you apologizing at all?
You can make it a lot better by swapping in that for if. “I’m sorry that I offended you” takes ownership by ditching the if.
I think a lot of apologies are given not out of a sincere desire to atone for causing hurt but out of a legalistic desire to mitigate liability and control risk of litigation. It’s the corporate equivalent of a mom grabbing her wayward child by the earlobe and saying “now TELL THEM YOU’RE SORRY and go to your room!”. That’s not good enough for grown-ups.
If you’re apologizing but not taking responsibility for the hurt you caused, you aren’t apologizing.
You’re doing a PR campaign.