Opinion

Is a Grudging Apology Better Than No Apology?

I eke an apology out of my younger daughter several times a week. She is generally a serene child, but when she loses her temper she can go from bleating lamb to aggressive honey badger in seconds. She only acts like this at home, and often her upset is focused on her older sister for some perceived injustice — “She only wants to watch ‘Friends’ and it’s boring!” Because she’s the younger sister and only 6, and doesn’t yet have the verbal dexterity to spar with words, she occasionally resorts to charging and tackling.

I’m pretty sure she doesn’t feel particularly remorseful about sacking her older sister. But when this occurs, I insist that she apologize and agree that we don’t put our hands on anybody — even when we’d rather watch “Full House.” Deep down, I think we both know this is a farce and that she might wake up and tackle her sister again tomorrow, but I still find worth in going through the motions of apology, though I’m not always sure why.

I was thinking of this when I read “Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies,” a helpful new book by Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy. They argue that apologizing well is a difficult art, and that we’d be a more just and kind society if more people — including our young children, celebrities and politicians — learned how to do it. The authors list the qualities of good and bad apologies. The No. 1 reason they give for not apologizing at all is: “You don’t mean it.” As they explain, “You’ll just apologize badly and risk making things worse.”

They have six and a half concise and straightforward rules for a good apology, and these apply to villains of all ages: “1. Say you’re sorry. 2. For what you did. 3. Show you understand why it was bad. 4. Only explain if you need to; don’t make excuses. 5. Say why it won’t happen again. 6. Offer to make up for it.” The additional half-step is to listen.

I agree with Ingall and McCarthy that grudging apologies, especially those from public figures, can often backfire — we’ve all rolled our eyes at the “if I offended anyone” frame — though I think that in some circumstances, a sorry that might not be full-throated still has its place. In the kid context, it’s pretty straightforward: I don’t want to let my kid think it’s OK to body-slam someone without making amends, and I don’t want her to think she can skate through life without even attempting to remedy or reflect on her mistakes.

In the context of public figures — the P.R. mea culpa, as it were — there are endless examples of famous and semifamous people making not-so-great apologies. Many of them trip up on step 4: They include a lot of excuses and explanations for their behavior that wind up coming off as defensive and not really contrite. A recent example that springs to mind is the kerfuffle involving comments Whoopi Goldberg made about the Holocaust, several months after she was briefly suspended from her job at “The View” for making similarly inaccurate remarks about the Holocaust — a depressingly frequent topic of unconvincing celebrity apologies of late.

If you missed it: In January 2022, Goldberg claimed, incorrectly, that the Holocaust was “not about race,” quipping, “This is white people doing it to white people, so y’all going to fight amongst yourselves.” After she dug herself in deeper during an interview with Stephen Colbert, she apologized in a way that seemed earnest, or at least checked the boxes of a robust apology, saying, “it is indeed about race because Hitler and the Nazis considered Jews to be an inferior race.” She added: “Words matter and mine are no exception. I regret my comments, as I said, and I stand corrected. I also stand with the Jewish people, as they know and y’all know, because I’ve always done that.”

But more recently she has appeared to walk back that very solid apology, to the extent that I now wonder about its sincerity: In December, in an interview with The Times of London, she suggested that the Holocaust wasn’t originally about race and went on to say: “You could not tell a Jew on a street. You could find me. You couldn’t find them. That was the point I was making. But you would have thought that I’d taken a big old stinky dump on the table, butt naked.” Following that interview, she apologized again, saying “I was asked about my comments from earlier this year” and that she “tried to convey to the reporter what I had said and why, and attempted to recount that time. It was never my intention to appear as if I was doubling down on hurtful comments.”

To be clear: As a Jewish person descended from Holocaust survivors, I still admire Goldberg and I don’t think she’s antisemitic, though I realize others may disagree. I gained a lot of insight into her outlook, and her desire to speak her mind at the potential cost of transgression, in this excellent profile by Jazmine Hughes in The New York Times Magazine.

I support Goldberg’s right to speak her mind, including when I disagree with her and when she’s pretty clearly wrong. Still, I wish she would cut short her comment-apology cycle on this topic, because the exercise makes me question what the point even is. I don’t think she’s done much to further the public’s understanding of the Jewish community’s history, or really helped take the temperature down in our overall discourse — and shouldn’t that be the goal here? While I don’t think she meant any harm, I also felt like her succession of statements added up to more chum for the perpetual outrage cycle. As my colleague Jessica Bennett put it last year: “Instead of leaving us feeling healed, or as if there is a rightful place for accountability in our world, all this apologizing seems to, instead, have had a flattening effect.”

And while there are obviously big differences between a celebrity’s complicated relationship with public statements and quotidian disputes among siblings, I think the act of apologizing has some universally applicable qualities. When you apologize, you’re offering vulnerability, opening the door for someone to judge and forgive you — something Goldberg admirably did, but then kind of stepped on with her muddled follow-on thoughts. Ingall and McCarthy write that a strong apology is valorous, that “the aftermath of a good apology can improve the lives and spirits of everyone it touches.”

I called them and asked about seemingly forced apologies — both my daughter’s and those of various luminaries — and my mixed feelings about them. Specifically, I asked whether, despite their caution against apologies one doesn’t really mean, there might be some value in a not entirely sincere “sorry.”

They told me that an imperfect apology from a public figure can be a teaching tool for us and our kids. “One thing you can do is talk with your kids about the crappy apologies that you see. Right? ‘Let’s discuss why this is crappy. Let’s discuss what this person could have done better,’” Ingall said. McCarthy said that we can get our children involved in figuring out how to make a better apology: You can ask your kids what they might say instead that would better repair the situation.

They also affirmed that there’s value in pushing your kids to apologize even if they don’t feel it in their hearts. Both Ingall and McCarthy said you can encourage your kid to apologize for breaking the house rules against name calling and fighting even if she doesn’t feel truly bad about being so incensed that she felt the urge to charge her sister like an ornery rhino. You might still feel aggrieved, your sister might still be on guard, but at least the whole house can move on (for now).

Ingall and McCarthy also made the point that an important part of learning the art — the skill — of apologizing is accepting that your apology might not fix the situation for everyone. “Being uncomfortable because you’re in the wrong and not being instantly rescued are all really good life lessons for kids,” Ingall said.

Those are lessons most of us adults still struggle with from time to time, pushing back against full accountability with defensiveness, whether we’re famous or not. I hope for my daughter that even though she has to be nudged to apologize, the importance of the practice will eventually sink in. Unlike a celebrity’s relationship with the public, my kid’s relationship with her sister is one that will surely endure many cycles of harm and repair.


Want More?

  • In 2018, for Opinion, Margaret Renkl offered similar advice about apologies. Her formulation was rooted in the Catholic Act of Contrition.

  • In 2019, the Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein pointed out that for politicians, it can hurt their standing to apologize: “In a diverse set of contexts, then, an apology tended to decrease rather than to increase overall support for those who said or did things that many people consider offensive.”

  • Also in 2019, Lindsey Weber explained why celebrities love using the iPhone app Notes to write their apologies.


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