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A sorry figure

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The Lance Armstrong apology has been described as a PR disaster. What makes for a good public apology? Actually, a lot more than just clever words.

How do we apologise? Do we at all? And when we do, do we couch it all desperately to make it even not look like an apology? Do we as a nation, ever really say sorry? Do we even know how to? And when we do, do we really mean it?
Many questions, and many answers really. Now that Lance Armstrong's public confession and apology have hit society at large in the solar plexus, let's explore one question: are we as Indians a nation stingy with our apologies? And are we worse for it? Or better?

Let me start with Lance Armstrong. Super-cyclist and super-hero for many. What's more, he is a cancer survivor who did wonders to the world with the Livestrong movement. This is a movement that changed millions of lives. Armstrong arrived in the world of cycling with victories that defied the spirit at large. Every win was a miracle and the world celebrated this miracle man. But then, sadly, behind every miracle man, there usually is a shady past. In Armstrong's case, there were drugs.

As story after story broke out on the doping charges, Armstrong took the high ground. He sat on top of it all and resolutely refuted every charge and every investigation with panache. If you were to see any and all of his past denials on television, you would never imagine that there was any doubt that he was speaking anything but the truth. But the world persisted. And so did David Walsh of the Sunday Times, who chased the story despite the vilification campaign launched against him by Armstrong (who kept demanding his apology in return). Today, Armstrong wants to apologise to Walsh. The apology has come a full circle.

Is an apology important at all? Take a look at it this way. The races are over and done with, millions have been hoodwinked and money has been made in terms of brand-endorsements and deals. Armstrong has reaped the benefits of fame in full measure.

The Livestrong Foundation has done great good to the world all around. How does an apology matter? And what does an apology do? What does it do for Lance Armstrong? And what does it do to all those who feel cheated to this day by his actions?
Maybe nothing at all. An apology in many ways is a mere string of words. At times these string of words have a strong connection to the psyche of the person in question and will carry some emotional weight. At times there will be no real meaning in those words. Words after all, are not actions. Lance Armstrong apologising to the Livestrong team is possibly very meaningless. An apology in word is indeed not an apology in action.

What then would be a good apology? If Lance Armstrong were to emulate what we do in India with the concept of the kar seva at our Gurudwaras and temples, would that be a more proper apology than mere words dished out to the electronic media? Would Lance Armstrong sitting out there outside New York's Grand Central Railway Station (which incidentally celebrates 100 years this week) polishing people's shoes as repentance be a better apology than those mere words on television? Are deeds more important than words? I do believe they are.

An apology today is a suspect item. There are just too many of them, and half of them, if not more, mean nothing at all. A politician apologises to another in India just to avoid that lawsuit that will have him trekking his way to his advocates and prolonged legal battles. The politician in fact has made it a habit to go out there and say what he wants, and when confronted, hurries to apologise. The damage has anyway been done. The muck has anyway been raked. And people at times remember the muck more than the subsequent apology. The apology, to that extent, is a science today. And the politician at large is the scientist at play.

Apologies in India are doled out by people who put their Size 11 foot in their Size 10 mouths. Asaram Bapu did it recently in the case of what he had to say about the Nirbhaya incident. In the beginning he stood by what he said. And in hours he denied having said it. And then in hours he amended the meaning of what he had said. And at the end of it all, when the public heat got to him finally (" barking dogs" aside), he apologised. Matter closed.
What was this all about then?

I do believe that the apology is, at large, a misused idea. People use the device rather flippantly. Apologies seldom pack meaning. I do believe you must apologise only if you mean it, and not just to save your precious arse from the heat that your loose canon mouth has built up. You must apologise only if your conscience permits it. And that apology has meaning. All others are meaningless words. Mere words.

In essence, the world of apology in India is quite a play. Most are meaningless. And most seek to protect the precious behind of the person behind the apology. And most apologies come with reasons and excuses. The real apology in many ways is the one that does not crouch and hide behind walls of reasons and excuses, and Benjamin Disraeli put it succinctly with his now famous string of words on an apology: "Never ruin an apology with an excuse!" How true!

The apology has lost all respect in many ways. An apology, instead of being considered a sign of strength, is considered a sign of weakness. And that indeed is the undoing of the apology movement at large. The power of an apology that is really meant is yet to be understood in right measure. And that is indeed the sign of the times. Evolution is however on. Still on.


Harish Bijoor is a brand-expert & CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc.

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