Recently, I've heard a slew of apologies. Paula Deen said “sorry” for her racist behavior, Anthony Weiner took responsibility (kind of) for airing his privates once again, Riley Cooper swore he’d learned from his racist mistakes, and the barista at my local coffee shop apologized profusely for not having the coffee flavor I love. It seems like everyone — celebrities and regular Joes and Janes alike — has apology fever. In fact, some psychologists and business experts note the U.S. has developed what they dub an “apology culture,” in which people of all professions, from CEOs to physicians, are apologizing more frequently.
Blame lawsuit culture, a society based on shame, or whatever you will: Everybody’s doing it. But do apologies actually help reconcile hurt feelings, or can they make things worse? Is there a “right” or “wrong” way to deliver an apology? Science helps us navigate America’s newest hobby.
The Right Way to Say It
Whether it’s via an appearance on a morning news show, a dozen long-stemmed roses, or standing outside someone’s window with a boom box blaring Akon’s Put the Blame on Me, there are approximately a million ways to apologize. But, as we’ve learned from both public figures (think Mel Gibson and Anthony Weiner) and, most likely, our own personal experiences, not all apologies are equally effective.
Unfortunately, experts haven't settled on one specific set of criteria for the "perfect apology". Some sources maintain there are four key components to an apology, while others claim as many as seven factors must be present in order for an apology to work. What each of these theories has in common is the idea that a meaningful apology should include clear acknowledgment and explanation of the offense, an expression of regret or shame, and a commitment to making reparations or providing compensation (whether monetary or symbolic).
This doesn’t seem like rocket science, but, in fact, many apologies lack even these basic parts. When Serena Williams blasted a line judge about an unfair call at the 2009 U.S. Open, her apology was everything but apologetic, lacking a clear statement of regret and failing to address the line judge’s feelings. Though Paula Deen’s first apology was a tearful cry for forgiveness, by generalizing her actions as “mistakes I have made” and the “wrong that I have done,” she failed to say what she’s sorry for and acknowledge the feelings of the offended parties. Of course, we can't know whether the offended parties appreciated the apologies regardless. But what these examples highlight is the fact that it's easy to overlook some of the core factors in what research dubs the most meaningful "sorry". An apology doesn’t have to be an elaborate song and dance, but the most effective ones take more than just slapping together a few slick words and shedding some tears.
Better Safe and Sorry
Even if saying “sorry” is a little tough, owning up to mistakes yields some pretty great perks. Research has found that apologies promote reconciliation between the two quarreling parties and can restore trust when the offender takes responsibility for their actions Removing the shadow of suspicion: the effects of apology versus denial for repairing competence-versus integrity-based trust violations. Kim, P.H., Ferrin, D.L., Cooper C.D., et al. Department of Management and Organization, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2004; 89(1):104-18.. A sincere apology can produce positive health effects for the victim, including a reduction in anger-induced high blood pressure Influence of apologies and trait hostility on recovery from anger. Anderson, J.C., Linden, W., Habra, M.E. The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 2006; 29(4):347-58.. In the workplace, employees who receive effective apologies reported higher job satisfaction, less anger, and greater self-esteem When forgiving enhances psychological well-being: the role of interpersonal commitment. Karremans, J.C., Van Lange, P.A., Ouwerkerk, J.W., et al. Department of Social Psychology, Free University, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003; 84(5): 1011-26..
While it seems apologizing is almost always a good idea — which might explain why so many people are doing it — simply saying “sorry” isn’t guaranteed to smooth things over (as Serena’s and Paula’s experiences demonstrate). In fact, when delivered the wrong way, apologies can end up doing more harm than good.
Sorry, Not Sorry?
When it comes to apologizing, what a person says matters just as much as the fact that they’re saying it. One study found that if a message seems insincere or strategic, it could foment further distrust and anger rather than reconciling the parties involved.
Take the example of Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries: Earlier this year, Jeffries issued a “semi-apology” on Facebook for a resurfaced quote that revealed he didn’t want heavier patrons shopping at his store. Instead of “likes,” the post received a flurry of unhappy comments. Despite the fact that Jeffries did express remorse, his message resonated with the public as a PR stint meant to placate people in the face of his insensitive and discriminatory comments. Worse, by labeling his words as “out of context”, Jeffries tried to evade taking responsibility for his actions — one of the key components of an effective apology.
Jeffries’ predicament highlights research that suggests apologies aren’t guaranteed to mitigate negative reactions. One study that measured physiological responses to apologies found that, while receiving an apology did decrease the offended party’s heart rate, it didn’t eliminate their experience of negative emotions.
Interestingly, choosing not to apologize can sometimes have its own perks. A study that asked participants to apologize, refuse to apologize, or take no action after committing a wrongdoing found that those who resisted remorse expressed higher self-esteem and increased feelings of power and control than people who apologized or took no action. While this finding doesn’t justify not owning up to eating your roommate’s homemade granola, it does elucidate the fact that choosing not to apologize may fulfill certain psychological needs. Withholding remorse keeps control in the reins of the offender, as opposed to giving the victim power to accept or reject an offer of regret. That might be a good power play, but it’s certainly not doing a relationship any favors.
It’s Never Too Late To Apologize — The Takeaway
So is it best to fess up and reconcile or refuse to apologize? Though public apologies have gotten slightly out of hand (and it may feel empowering to hold your ground), chances are the majority of conflicts could benefit from a sincere expression of remorse. Apologies that come from the heart tend to restore justice, promote renewed positive feelings toward the offender, and motivate forgiveness Interpersonal forgiving in close relationships. McCulllough, M.E., Worthington, E.L., Rachal, K.C. National Institute for Healthcare Research, Rockville, MD. Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, 1997; 73(2): 321-36. Conciliatory gestures facilitate forgiveness and feelings of friendship by making transgressors appear more agreeable. Tabak, B.A., McCullough, M.E., Luna, L.R., et al. Department of Psychology, University of Miami, Miami, FL. Journal of Personality, 2012; 89(2): 503-36. So go ahead, hop on the apology bandwagon — just make sure you mean it before opening your mouth.