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Why is it so hard to say sorry properly?


SORRY STATE OF AFFAIRS US general Stanley McChrystal's (second from left) apology for criticising Washington in a scathing interview was rejected and he was sacked by Obama

Everywhere, people are saying they are sorry. US general Stanley McChrystal, for one, after talking ill of his commander in chief. Or the French football team apologising after a shameful exit from the World Cup. Or the BP chief executive, Tony Hayward, saying sorry for the destruction caused by his company's oil well. Or Representative Joe Barton apologising to Hayward and then apologising for that apology. And these were but the most recent mea culpas. There was also the Pope's, for the pain caused to Irish parishioners by paedophile priests;British prime minister David Cameron's, for the murder by British soldiers of Irish protesters on Bloody Sunday 38 years ago;a parade of athletes and politicians for using steroids or breaking their marriage vows;and the occasional carmaker for not acting quickly enough to repair faulty systems.

All this apologising should be good for our collective soul, allowing those who are wrong a chance to repent and those who have been wronged a change to forgive, right? Apologies, says Aaron Lazare, former chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and author of the book On Apology, are "the most profound of human interactions. " When used well, the words can heal humiliation - by lifting anger and guilt and allowing splintered bonds to mend.

Or at least that's what they are supposed to do. These days, they more often sound like parodies of their once-powerful selves, and instead of bringing solace, they tend to create more anger. Hayward said: "I am very, very sorry that this accident occurred, very sorry. . . And I do believe that it's right to investigate it fully and draw the right conclusions. " But we heard this: "I am sorry it happened, sure, but I am not saying that it was anything we could have prevented. " He also said, "This is a complex accident, caused by an unprecedented combination of failures. " In other words, it wasn't our fault.

Jennifer Robbennolt, professor of law and psychology at the University of Illinois, calls these kinds of statements "non-apology apologies, " and they are worse, she argues, than no apology at all. In a study she has conducted, she presented test subjects with a hypothetical situation - one in which a cyclist injures a pedestrian. She then attributed one of three statements to the cyclist and asked the subjects whether the injured party should accept a proffered settlement. When a full apology was offered (" I am so sorry that you were hurt. The accident was all my fault, I was going too fast and not watching where I was going" ), 73 per cent of the respondents said the pedestrian should be willing to accept the settlement. When no apology was offered, 52 per cent said the pedestrian should settle. And when only a partial apology was offered (" I am so sorry that you were hurt, and I really hope that you feel better soon" ), 35 per cent opted for a settlement. So what does a successful apology sound like? Much like that of Robbennolt's first cyclist's - an expression of regret, an assumption of full responsibility. It also helps to put forward a plan for preventing similar mistakes in the future. In business, the Tylenol poisoning case of 1982 is still the gold standard. James Burke, the chief executive of Johnson & Johnson, stepped up and took the blame, promising to recall all Tylenol products and create tamper-resistant packaging. Two years ago, Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd also successfully apologised when he expressed deep regret over past wrongs against the aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, specifically the removal of children from their parents. A lesser known example was a decision the chief of staff at the Veteran's Affairs medical centre in Kentucky made a couple of decades ago when postmortem clinical tests showed that an elderly patient died because of a hospital error. The family would never have known, but for the fact the hospital admitted its mistake. The family was offered an apology and compensation and a plan of how internal procedures would change to prevent the same thing from happening to others.

In short, the hospital took a risk. Apologising in spite of the fact that it could get you in deeper legal or personal trouble seems to be a key difference between a compelling show of regret and a confounding one. Describing the Bloody Sunday massacre as "both unjustified and unjustifiable, " Cameron took the chance that he might reignite the tinderbox of Northern Ireland.
The fact that Joyce was forgiven by the pitcher he wronged and that Cameron was cheered on the streets of Derry and that malpractice lawsuits actually decreased under the new full-disclosure-and-apology policy at the hospital in Kentucky shows the effectiveness of a sincere apology. But these are not magic incantations that you can recite and then be done. Would these words have sounded as sincere in the absence of risk? Or is it the vulnerability entwined with the words that makes an apology ring true?

That question is being explored now in medicine. A number of states have passed laws making a doctor's apology inadmissible as evidence in a lawsuit, in keeping with the belief that patients find solace when a doctor admits a mistake. When an apology fails, two things are lost - the victims are not asked for forgiveness, nor are they given a chance to grant it. Being asked to forgive restores dignity to the injured. A botched apology not only taints the act of apology but the ability to accept an apology as well. And that is unforgivable.

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