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What Separates a Real Apology From a Non-Apology?

We asked a therapist, a kindergarten teacher and a publicist to explain—by analyzing the words of some famous non-apologizers

“You have to own it,” says Jinous Berjis, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “Nate Parker never owns it.”

Berjis is referring to the Birth of a Nation director’s 60 Minutes interview in which Parker scowled at the camera before veering into what most people interpreted as a non-apology for rape accusations made against him in 1999. (His accuser later committed suicide.)

“I don’t feel guilty,” Parker said about the events. Pushed further, he added, “As a Christian man, just being in that situation, yeah, sure. I’m 36 years old right now. And my faith is very important to me. So looking back through that lens, I definitely feel like it’s not the lens that I had when I was 19 years old.”

Though Parker’s case is arguably the most severe in a “rare outbreak of public apologies,” as The Washington Post called it, the epidemic has spread far beyond him.

Among other things, 2016 can be summed up as the year that everyone said or repeated some combination of the words, “I’m sorry”: Fox News, Russia, an American Olympian, Billy Bush, the CEO of Wells Fargo and all but one presidential candidate. Too bad they all whiffed the first time and the second time and if there was a third, you can bet there was a fourth and after that, “it was clear that the person apologizing was only trying to justify their behavior rather than take responsibility,” says Rebecca Quintos, a special education preschool and kindergarten teacher.

But apologies are complicated. “Reflecting and understanding how your actions can be hurtful is not instinctive; it has to be taught,” says Berjis, who works with adults and children to improve their emotional intelligence. “Which is why an empathetic apology can be so healing.”

Eileen Koch, president of her own PR firm, agrees. “Everyone makes mistakes, but people have a tendency to forgive if the person apologizing shows awareness for their actions. It’s a simple matter of respect.”

Writing on the new culture of apology in Dissent, Nicolaus Mills says, “these days the apologizer, whether a public figure or a nation, is humanized by apologizing. A speech act once considered a sign of weakness has in just over a decade emerged as a strength, a sign that one has the confidence to own up to mistakes.”

But if that’s the case, then the recent cast of public apologists characterized as “performers,” intimidators, “sociopaths” and “outright criminals,” has by most measures, failed miserably in capturing the public’s affinity for compassion.

Here’s what a marriage and family therapist, a preschool and kindergarten special education teacher and the president of a PR agency had to say about Hillary Clinton (non-apologizing for her emails), Donald Trump (non-apologizing for sexual assault allegations), Nate Parker (non-apologizing for rape allegations) and the former CEO of Wells Fargo, John Stumpf (non-apologizing for a banking scam).

Show Empathy (Unlike Trump)

“There was no empathy, no consideration of how others could have interpreted Trump’s words,” says Berjis. “He made it seem like, ‘You guys are the ones making a big deal out of this and that’s why I’m apologizing.’ Instead of seriously pondering what those words really mean and the huge impact they had on the people hearing them — not only women but men too.”

Be Specific (Like Wells Fargo’s Stumpf)

“[Stumpf’s] apology reminded me of a student who is required to apologize for something they don’t necessarily believe was wrong,” says Quintos. But what he lacked in believability he made up for in specificity. “Stumpf is very detailed in his explanation,” Quintos continues. “He gives a clear idea of exactly what he’s apologizing for, which helps strengthen his apology.” Berjis adds that he could’ve even been more specific: “The CEO seemed so genuine, saying things like ‘I’m willing to give back my pay and bonuses,’ but he didn’t say he was going to step down. He never stated when he found out about it. Instead, he acts like he didn’t know until everyone else knew, but if you’re the head of the company, you’re telling me you didn’t know?”

Own It (Unlike Nate Parker)

“[Parker’s] statement comes across very heartfelt, but if you read between the lines he never takes responsibility,” says Berjis. “He generalizes by citing women’s issues. It was as though he had heard about this story from someone else, and he was sharing his input about how terrible it seemed. He sounds empathic, but he keeps repeating ‘these issues’ which helps remove him from the situation. It was not an apology. It was his discourse on women who get raped. He says, ‘I cannot change what happened,’ and you think he’s about to own it. Then he starts talking about who he is in the community. You have to own it.”

Don’t Deflect (Unlike Hillary Clinton)

“During the course of her apology, Hillary falls into a common trap,” says Berjis. “She apologizes and then deflects. She uses the word ‘but,’ which basically negates everything she said before it and washes away any reflection she might have had during the course of her apology. What she could have done is use ‘and’ instead of ‘but.’ She could have said, ‘I really understand what you’re saying or I really understand the mistake that I made, and.’ It’s a small detail but it makes all the difference in how her apology comes across.” Quintos adds, “take a moment to understand what happened. That’s what I try to instill in my students. From the start, Hillary Clinton jumps in and says that she didn’t do anything wrong rather than try to understand her mistake. Because of that her apology comes across as forced and insincere.”

Bonus Points for Charm

“Some people are born luckier than others — they have charm,” says Koch. “You can’t teach someone how to be charming; you either have it or you don’t. Hillary, as wonderful and intelligent as she is, isn’t particularly charming. When she apologizes it comes across a bit cold, which makes it more difficult to feel empathy for her. It doesn’t matter that she may or may not be telling the truth. Use the O.J. Simpson case as an example. If someone else had delivered Johnny Cochran’s words, the case may have turned out differently. But Cochran could turn on his charm like crazy and make anyone believe what he was saying. He had a gift.”