Zeinab Khalil: The rise of the non-apology

By Zeinab Khalil, Columnist
Published November 5, 2013

We live in an age of non-apologies, where celebrities, politicians and community leaders screw up regularly and then craft clever “apologies” that actually aren’t apologies at all and aren’t all that clever. Recent examples of such non-apologies include the man whom I asked to hold the elevator but said “sorry” and allowed it to close anyway even though there was plenty of time to intervene. Other non-apologies have much more serious implications, like the complete lack of accountability for a government shutdown that, among many things, halted thousands of children from going to preschool because of cuts in Head Start and kept tens of thousands of low-income mothers from feeding their babies due to the slashing of WIC budgets. And finally, fresh and familiar on our own campus, the highly embarrassing “response” from Theta Xi for organizing a racist frat party is a classic example of a sorry-I’m-not-sorry non-apology.

Why is it so difficult for us to apologize — and mean it? Apologizing is tough. Our egos often get in the way and make the worst of us. Some of us may truly feel remorseful for something we said or did, but don’t know how to properly express it. On the flip side, some of us may verbally admit our mistake but not really show that we care to rectify it. The good news about non-apologies is that we can unlearn them — with practice, we can cultivate a culture that cherishes sincere apologies. Here are some ways to examine how we apologize:

Apologize for what you did — not for how others feel. Never under any circumstance apologize for someone’s emotions by making some terribly trite comment like, “I’m sorry you feel angry by this” or the typical “I’m sorry you feel offended.” These statements expel you from the picture and suggest that the person’s emotions exist in a vacuum, unrelated to your words or actions. If you’re offering any sort of apology, it’s because you had some role in whatever happened, so take accountability for your behavior and apologize for your role in making someone feel offended, angry, marginalized, etc.

Apologize for what you did — not for getting caught. Saying something like “I’m sorry I said this — it was insensitive to our diverse staff members,” implies that what you did was wrong not because it was actually wrong, but because the person you wronged was there to witness it. This sort of apology suggests that in a different context, where said person wasn’t there or said “diverse” identities were absent, your words and behavior would have been OK. This is not an apology. This is you saying you’re sorry you got caught and will try harder to get away with it next time — perhaps by being more “politically correct” or making sure that some of the comments you make are “off the radar.”

Apologize to all those affected explicitly or indirectly. If your mistake affected certain individuals specifically but also others more generally, you should issue both a private and a public apology that align in what they say. That is, if you issue a private apology, follow it with a similar public apology — not a public non-apology that attempts to save face. If you don’t, don’t be surprised if the recipients of the private apology call you out publicly.

Take full ownership of your apology. Avoid apologizing in the passive voice. Saying things like “I’m sorry my comments were misconstrued” or “I’m sorry my words were presented as such” suggest that the problem is with the person on the receiving end of the non-apology. Again, if you’re apologizing at all, it’s because the problem is you, so you need to center your damaging behavior in your apology. Also, avoid masking your position in the mistake by using vague statements like “I’m sorry this happened.” Things don’t just happen, and you certainly shouldn’t apologize for something that just “happened” unless you played a role in making it happen.

Don’t justify your apology by bringing in your intentions. An apology should be able to stand on its own without prefaces, explanations, or qualifiers. One common way apologies are spoiled into non-apologies is through justifying your mistakes by pointing to your non-malicious intentions. It’s OK to give some motivational context to your mistake, saying something like, “I meant to be funny, but I clearly failed and hurt you. I apologize for my poor judgment,” but explaining your motivations should in no way attempt to change how your comments or behavior are interpreted by others. It doesn’t matter if you had good or bad intentions — the impact you caused remains the same, and that’s ultimately what you have to answer to.

Don’t suggest your mistake is simply the result of a slip in word choice or poor framing. Non-apologizers will often try to lessen the weight of their mistake by framing it as a mere problem of diction, saying things like, “I need to be much more tactful in choosing my words next time” or “Please know it was my lack of decorum and not bigotry that informed my comments.” If you owe an apology because of something you said or did, only apologizing for how you said or did it derails the conversation from the crux of the problem.

Don’t dictate how your apology ought to be received. Finally, if you’ve provided a sincere, meaningful apology, know that this is all you can do. Don’t move beyond what you’re accounting for by telling others how they should respond to your apology, by saying things like, “I really hope you will accept this apology so that we can move forward,” or “I’m sorry and I hope we can put this behind us.” It isn’t up to you how the person you have wronged should deal with your apology. Of course, you hope that they will receive it, but it’s not your role to pressure them to do so or suggest that they owe you acceptance or forgiveness.

Zeinab Khalil can be reached at zkha@umich.edu.