“I know what I was feeling, but what was I thinking?”
– Dierks Bentley
Why is it that we see so many people apologizing? We used to occasionally hear someone publicly say they felt bad about things they did or said. But lately it’s turned into a Niagara Falls of forgiveness.
Any indiscretion or poorly turned phrase can result in some group asking for the FBI to investigate. Political correctness has been around for a long time, but what’s going on now is something new, even for the language police.
It’s to the point where people seem to be lining up to confess their sins in very public ways. There they were in the same week: Oprah Winfrey apologizing for the fallout a Swiss shopkeeper was feeling; Jesse Jackson Jr. tearfully confessing to misusing his congressional office; and a rodeo clown who wore a mask of the president. Even a lowly Army private was sorry he stole secrets.
This apology thing has really caught me off-guard, because I always thought we were becoming something else – a nanny state, a place where people expected the government to subsidize their “pursuit of happiness.” From the past presidential campaign we learned that 47 percent of the people are dependent on the government in some manner. You sure don’t hear those people apologizing.
The people who apologize are in the other 53 percent. Actually, they’re in the 1 percent – the stratosphere of our society in which wealth and power matter. Maybe those folks feel they don’t ever have to apologize for what they say or do. In fact the English humorist P. G. Wodehouse said it’s a “good rule in life never to apologize.”
But that is all changing. I’m not sure where the tipping point was, but we are being exposed to enough apologies to fill a 24-hour reality channel on cable television. Remember:
• Bill Clinton admits he “misled” us and his wife about his intimacy with an intern;
• Tiger Woods “regrets” not being “true to his values;”
• U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford stoically said he “hurt a lot of folks” while outh Carolina governor;
• Mel Gibson apologized to
“everyone in the Jewish Community;”
• Paula Deen’s YouTube meltdown;
• U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson recanted his “You lie!” shout-out to President Obama;
• Lance Armstrong finally
came clean that he wasn’t so
• Reese Witherspoon was
“embarrassed” by an alcohol-
induced confrontation with
• Kanye West apologized to Taylor Swift for dissing her;
• David Letterman punched his apology card twice: remorseful for attacking Sarah Palin’s child, and ’fessing up to an affair with a young staffer.
The list goes on.
Researcher Tyler Okimoto at Australia’s University of Queensland finds that apologies often make the apologizers feel better. His work suggests why many people initially would follow Wodehouse’s advice not to ’fess up. “Refusals to apologize,” writes Okimoto, “also make people feel better and, in fact, in some cases it makes them feel better than an apology would have.”
WHAT I HAVE found these folks all have in common, other than a public apology, is that they did not acknowledge their bad behavior until they were found out. Most often they are verbally beaten into submission by the speech police. Thinking they will get away with it may explain why they are reluctant to come clean in the first place. Who will forget Bill Clinton’s initial defiant, finger-pointing response: “I did not
have sexual relations with that woman ... .”
When they eventually seek the forgiveness that they hope will make this all the bad talk and bad feelings go away, the statements of contrition seem qualified and superficial. Really, who are they trying to kid?
In 1995 U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato used a stereotyped Japanese accent to mock Judge Lance Ito, who was presiding over the O.J. Simpson trial. He responded to the criticism by saying, “If I offended anyone, I’m sorry.” (Hey, if you’re not sure you offended anyone, then why are you apologizing?)
The storm did not die down for the New York politician, and a few days later D’Amato was on the Senate floor to “fully recognize the insensitivity of my remarks.”
I have no way of knowing who is going to apologize next. I suspect it may be me, asking my wife to overlook my tracking dirt across the floor she has just cleaned. “To err is human,” I might plead. To which she would probably respond: “Not in my house.”
SOME GREAT tips for structuring an apology have been collected on wikiHow.com. The next time you find yourself on the wrong side of a comment or deed, consider this: Determine what went wrong and take ownership. Use direct statements to make amends for an error in judgment. And ask for forgiveness.
On the other side, if you are the one who has been wronged, think about why you would ask for an apology. Is it to reconcile and restore a relationship, or to humiliate and pass blame?
The 99 percent of us can learn a lot from the public failings of the 1 percent. It’s a shame that we are exposed to these lessons on a regular basis. Fame, fortune and power do not always translate into good judgment.
Life might be a bit better if the 1 percent were more like the 99 percent. At least there would be much less to apologize for.
(The writer is a former Augusta mayor and current president and CEO of the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy.)