The ‘Clayton’s apology’ and the rise of ‘mealy-mouthed fauxpologies’

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Insight at Research First

Watching United CEO Oscar Munoz last month, and the Trump administration over the past 100 days, it's hard not to wonder when we lost sight of how to deliver genuine and heartfelt apologies. By that I mean the kind of apology where somebody takes full responsibility for their actions, expresses remorse for the damage they had caused, and outlines what they will do to make things better.

Instead what we seem to get are what some journalists and social sciences have called the "non-apology". This is the apology you give when you're not really giving an apology. If you're of a certain age, you can think of this as the Clayton's apology.

Once you know what to look for, you'll see these Clayton's apologies everywhere. Perhaps the most common is the apology that argues that no apology is really necessary. This is the "mistakes were made" approach to apologising. Here those mistakes exist only in an abstract sense, as though they happened outside of time and space. If you have young children, you might think of this as the "Mr Nobody" apology. The apologiser certainly isn't admitting to anything, and it appears that no-one else is to blame either.

In US politics you can even see people arguing that no apology is necessary even where there is an admission that the speaker made the mistake in question. This is the brilliantly absurd "I misspoke" version of the non-apology. Here the speaker denies any claim to responsibility because they meant to say or do something else. In literature this is called magical realism but in US politics it's part and parcel of the fear and loathing of the campaign trail. Yes, we're talking about you Jeff Sessions.

The third common kind of non-apology is one that puts the blame back on those taking offence. This is the classic "I'm sorry if anyone was offended" approach. This kind of non-apology takes no responsibility for what was said and, instead, argues that the only offence exists in the minds of the listeners. If you weren't so easily offended, there'd be no need for anyone to apologise. So the real problem here is with you. Obviously.

Writing in Slate magazine, Stan Carey noted that these "mealy-mouthed fauxpologies" have little to do with genuine remorse and everything to do with getting the apologiser's conscience off the hook. As Tacitus said about something else, "they make a desert and call it peace".

If you're feeling generous, you could argue that we in the West have been using 'apology' as an synonym for 'justification' since Aristotle was a schoolboy. For instance, Plato's The Apology (which gives Plato's account of how Socrates defended himself at his trial) provides no sense of an 'apology' as we commonly understand it. Instead, the Greek word 'apologia' translates much more closely to 'an argument for the defence'. In this regard, everyone who offers up a non-apology may be reaching for an 'apologia' rather an apology.

In my less generous moments, I suspect anyone reaching for a non-apology is more likely to be a scoundrel than a scholar of Ancient Greece (in the sense that the non-apology seems to have become the last refuge of the scoundrel). The evidence from social science points this way too. Research conducted in Australia (and published in The European Journal of Social Psychology) shows that refusing to apologise can result in greater self-esteem and increased feelings of power and control by those that cause the harm. The Australian researchers are clear that getting to an apology first means overcoming these "defensive behaviour[s] for self-focused motives".

In contrast, the bulk of the research shows that genuine apologies serve very useful social purposes. As Psychology Today explains, apologies "convert a desire for revenge into willingness to forgive and forget".

The key to giving this kind of apology is to remember that you should never ruin an apology with an excuse. Instead of trying to explain why you did what you did, you need to focus on the 'Three Rs' of all good apologies. These are remorse, responsibility, and redress.

In other words, you need to express remorse for what you did. Then accept responsibility for your behaviour (this will be when you will most likely want to explain why you did it, but resist that temptation). Finally, be clear about what you are going to do redress the harm that has been done. This might be a simple promise to learn from the mistake and to not repeat it.

Explained like this, good apologies seem so simple. But things get even simpler. If you're in doubt about where to get started, try reaching for these two magic words: "I'm sorry."

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.

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