On Apology

21 Jan

Darrows: Do tell me how to apologize, Haemon.

I’ve been mulling this post over since this snide request was made of one of my WoW characters. Since I am a preachy know-it-all who is well experienced with making apologies, I feel I am entirely qualified to explain the elementary yet oft ill-performed art of the apology.

The key to making an apology is proper motivation. If you’ve got a crappy aim behind your apology, you’re going to have a crappy apology.

Darrows: . . . I’m terribly sorry he’s been taxed and upset.

This is what I like to call the corporate apology. The goal with this kind is not to actually make amends, but rather to get the recipient off one’s back.

Haemon: Thaaat’s not an apology.

You can see the sentiment clearly. It’s only a small step above “I’m sorry you feel that way,” which not only does not make amends, but directly blames the victim. It doesn’t take responsibility for either the action or the resulting pain. At best, it’s an expression of sympathy, the kind of thing mourners at a funeral state with hats in hand to the surviving kin of a lost loved one.

Let me begin by telling our customers personally how much I regret any problems or inconvenience they may have experienced as a result of the unauthorized intrusion into our computer system.

That’s CEO Carol Meyrowitz of The TJX Companies, giving her most sincere apology for dropping the ball and letting hackers steal the personal information–including credit card numbers–of millions of T.J. Maxx customers through repeated intrusions over the course of a year and a half. Only it’s not really her apologizing for that at all. Throughout the entire statement she issued–you can find it here–she never actually takes responsibility for it. No, no, you see, it’s the hackers’ fault! It’s not like they handed out your address! It was unauthorized! They’re going to do better, but wow, who saw that coming for eighteen months?

That, let me remind you, is the ‘at best’ option. At worst? Tony Hayward.

We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.

I’m sure there have been worse failures of apology in the history of corporate apologies, but I can’t think of one in recent memory. Not only does this fail at taking responsibility for the millions of barrels of oil that gushed into the Gulf of Mexico last year, but it even fails at expressing sympathy. Rather than a mea culpa, it’s a miserere mei. And notably, no one did.

So, all right, what’s the right way to apologize, then?

Darrows: I’m sorry I caused him grief?

Close, Ms. Darrows. You’ve got there the important “taking responsibility,” which is the most vital component of making an apology. The person you’ve wrong wants to hear that you know you wronged them. Maybe it’s petty, but they want to hear that they were right.

What they don’t want to hear is that extenuating circumstances forced you into it. They don’t want to hear that your electronic security was never an issue before, and hey, who else pays attention to that sort of thing anyway? They don’t want to hear that, well, Halliburton mixed the cement, so really, it’s probably THEIR fault. They don’t want to hear that you forgot, or you didn’t think, and they definitely, absolutely don’t want to hear that this is partly their fault for getting so damned upset about this.

I say the most vital, but really, that component is about equally as vital as the other portion of a proper apology:

Bricu: Fix it.

All the guilt in the world means nothing if the problem’s just going to happen again or, worse, if it’s ongoing and you’re not stopping it. This is the point on which most corporate apologies do succeed but Mr. Hayward failed most heartily. If you’re going to explain, this is where that comes in. Do you know what went wrong? Great. You better know how to stop making it go wrong, or at least be open to suggestion. Willingness to change, to work with the victim of your actions, is what turns an acceptable apology into a brilliant one, taking it from a grovel to a collaborative agreement that can do more than restore relations. If you do it right, it can even make you look like the good guy.

In summary, an apology is two very important things: acceptance of guilt, and an effort to improve. Or, as I once explained to Ms. Darrows:

Haemon: Apology means you own up for what exactly you did to fuck up, and then actually sound sorry.

Anything else is just you being an ass.

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