Apology Tour: Saying Sorry Can Help Heal

When I was a kid, my mother corrected me for issuing a conditional apology, pointing out that if your apology includes a “but” or excuse, you’re not sincerely apologizing. In more recent years, I read somewhere that if your public relations apology falls short of expressing mortification, you’re not coming clean.

We are seeing a spate of apologies of sorts, from Boeing to Biden. I’d like to highlight a great example of a complete apology. A local official here in southeast Texas drew attention to himself by criticizing the Harris County judge (county executive) for speaking Spanish while debriefing the public during a press conference about a chemical fire at a storage facility along the Houston Ship Channel. A Chambers County commissioner Mike Tice said, “this is not Mexico” and “this is the United States. Speak English.” Those words got a lot of negative attention. For anyone who missed his apology, here it is:

“From my understanding, there were reporters asking questions in Spanish and Judge Hildalgo (sic) responded to those questions in Spanish, with no translation given. If that is not the case, then I sincerely apologize,” Tice said. “Like many citizens concerned about the ITC fires, I was very emotional about the effect it was having on everyone. I apologize to Judge Hidalgo, the citizens of my County, and most importantly the entire Hispanic community for hastily acting out with transgression on social media.”

OK, some critics were not satisfied with his apology. Yet, I found it rather salient that he used the word transgression to identify his wrong. He didn’t call it an error or a mistake. He acknowledged he lashed out with emotion. He said he was sorry to the Hispanic community. That’s a pretty good apology and it should be accepted.

It used to be that people accepted apologies. Have we become less forgiving or are some transgressions too much to let go? Speaking of the chemical storage facility fire, the company had a spokeswoman issuing statements and apologizing during local press conferences, but it took a while for the head of the company to issue an apology.

Then, there’s Boeing. The CEO apologized for lives lost and said it was a “heart-wrenching time” at a great company. See what he did there? He maintained the company is great, despite two planes falling out of the air and killing those aboard. OK. Wait, he went on. He referred to pilots having a “high workload environment.” Hmmm. It certainly adds to one’s workload when you need to overcome a software problem pushing down the nose of the plane. I suppose we should feel grateful the company is working on a software upgrade. Still, you can interpret that he was saying the software problem caused the problem. “We own it and we know how to do it,” he said of the fix. It was a decent apology. It’s tragic and it’s hard to judge someone in that situation. Maybe the apology could have included more emphasize on expressing sympathy for the lost souls. Granted, he did reiterate that sympathy at the end of the statement.

Now, we have the college bribery parents. Some have issued statements of apology that demonstrate they are apparently quite embarrassed. For example, a couple from California said this: “No words can express how profoundly sorry we are for what we have done. Our duty as parents was to set a good example for our children, and instead we have harmed and embarrassed them by our misguided decisions.”

Similarly, a New York lawyer, who is pleading guilty to paying an exam proctor to correct his daughter’s answers, expressed sorrow: “My immediate goal is to focus on making amends for my actions to try to win back the trust and respect of my daughter, my family, and my community…The remorse and shame that I feel is more than I can convey.”

Is there a distinction between being embarrassed and apologetic? We don’t know how their apologies are going over in their work and at home, where it really matters most in these cases.

Then, you have the big-time public figure apology tour. Uncle Joe, also known as former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who also served in Congress representing his adopted home state of Delaware for many years found himself being criticized for being way too friendly over the course of his career. In his video apology, he suggested societal standards have changed. Really? When was it OK to come up behind a woman and smell her hair, in particular, when she is about to step on stage at her campaign rally? That story really hit me, especially when she related one of her first thoughts was hoping the Earth would open and swallow her up.

I’m not saying Uncle Joe is a bad guy. It’s just his apology video sounded a little like a conditional apology. He maintained he is expressive to show he cares about people and gets huggy with men and women. At least, he claims that he gets it now. It was totally appropriate to say he recognize and respect personal space. And, he had a point that nowadays people take selfies with group hugs and that can probably be confusing when navigating what he sees as new societal norms. Still, he proceeded to make a joke at a subsequent appearance about getting permission to hug a male participant. Not funny.

I’m going to cut Uncle Joe a little break here. Not because I am OK with hair-sniffing. But, because he didn’t say grab ‘em by the you know what. There is a difference. I especially want to express appreciation for Saturday Night Live for a cold opening that explained what the problem is and did so with wonderful humor.

I hope you never have to say you’re sorry. No one wants to be in a position where they have transgressed so badly that a public apology is warranted. I feel sorry for many of these people, but grateful for society that many are trying to say I am sorry. If we cannot allow people to apologize or refuse to accept apologies, how can we heal? Apologies accepted.

The Sage Leopard, thesageleopard@gmail.com