The Lost Art of Apology

By June 7, 2018Leadership

I’m sorry. How often do you hear those words? I mean hear them applied really sincerely. These days, probably not much.

The journalist Ambrose Bierce lived from 1842 to 1914 and in The Devil’s Dictionary, he wrote that to apologize was “to lay the foundation for a future offence.”

And isn’t that what we constantly see from businesses, celebrities, executives, and more? They’re really only sorry that they got caught. Because if they were truly sorry, they would have caught the slip-up themselves – not waited until they were outed by the media. So they offer their meaningless apology, and it typically smooths things over. For a while.

Until the next time they get caught, doing the same thing over again.

Do we really need apologies? And for those who offer them, what’s the art of making a good one?

As a father with young children, I had to teach them the art of saying sorry. Do you know what sorry means? Well, of course you understand it intuitively, but how would you simply describe what sorry means to a two or three year-old? Think about it for a moment.

It was an interesting exercise for me as a father.  Here’s how I defined sorry to my kids: when you say sorry it means you didn’t mean to do it and you’ll try not to do it again.

The first part of the phrase is the easy part. It’s what we mean when we apologize for bumping into someone, or making a simple error. But the second part – I’ll try not to do it again – that’s what takes effort. You really have to give that part some thought, and commit to acting differently the next time.

How often to you say sorry and really mean it?

P.G. Wodehouse wrote: “It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.”

Think about companies that have stepped in it in recent memory. Typically these are companies that have experienced data breaches or that have violated the privacy and trust of their customers. Do you think we want apologies for those things?

I’d say yes – but again, it’s the second part of the meaning of the word that makes all the difference.

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