“Mistakes were made.”
“We apologize to anyone who may have been offended.”
You’ve heard it all too often: an apology that doesn’t really, well, apologize.
When my mother taught me to apologize to my sisters for one grievous childhood thing or another, it was all very clear: an apology meant four things. You take responsibility, that is, you admit you did it. You recognize that what you did was wrong. You express that to another. And you say, explicitly or implicitly, that it will not happen again.
But in the climate of venality that seems to be the Standard Operating Principle for big business and so many politicians these days – those two being ever-more synonymous – apologies are a different matter altogether.
Apologies are all about damage control. They’re about avoiding fallout, incurring bad publicity or a lawsuit. They’re all about appearing to be contrite but seldom taking responsibility.
Apology Technique 1: Passive aggressive
Take the infamous, “Mistakes were made.” This is a favorite of militaries when they just happen to kill a few dozen civilians at, say, a wedding party. Oops, I wrote that wrong. I should not have written “when they killed” but “when civilians were killed.”
In the writing business we call that a passive construction. When I write, “Mistakes were made” or “Civilians were killed” there isn’t any indication that anyone in particular made the mistake or killed the civilians.
This has long been a favorite of the military and politicians, as witnessed by George Orwell’s critique of the passive voice many years ago.
Apology Technique 2: Bait and Switch
After the BP Gulf oil spill, BP’s apology began: “The Gulf spill is a tragedy that never should have happened….BP has taken full responsibility for cleaning up the spill.” First the bait: An apparent apology, in the passive voice of course: it “never should have happened” as if a decision to pump oil from the sea floor, paying millions to supportive politicians, spending billions on construction, and divvying up millions in profits, somehow just happened.
Then, the switch: We’re taking responsibility. Sounds good. But responsibility for what? The spill? No. Only for cleaning up the mess. There seems to be, but in fact there is no, real apology or taking of responsibility for the spill itself. No promise not to repeat similar drilling programs that, someday, will lead to other “accidents.” All BP gave was a promise to clean up their mess (at least the part that people can see.)
Apology Technique 3: Half-baked apology
The other favorite is “We apologize to anyone who was offended.” This is probably the most common technique these days. I heard it, for example, after The Huffington Post conducted a poll to see which of two women celebrities appeared the most “tranny,” which is a derogatory term for transgendered people, implying along the way that if you are transgendered, you aren’t attractive. Huffington was pressed and it took down the story and the poll. The editor’s note included, in part, the formulation: “We regret the error and apologize to anyone who was offended.”
The problem isn’t only that this type of apology seems grudging―as if you’re only apologizing because a few oversensitive types got their knickers in a knot, as my British friends might say. The bigger problem is not recognizing that certain words or deeds are just plain wrong.
Huffington Post is far from the worst offender. But here’s what I wish they had said: “We regret our offensive remarks. We apologize to all our readers because we realize that such remarks are, indeed, offensive to everyone.”