Cross-cultural Apologies

28 07 2010

I’m just starting to get into the fact that different cultures do apologies in different ways. There seems, however, to be some common threads. One of these, the longing for evidence of remorse or repentance or redemption, I read about in Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation (Picador, 2004). What struck me in the example given, from Samoa,  was the place of the symbolic. Garner writes:

“In  Samoa, a cabinet minister was assassinated. One night his grieving widow heard voices under her window, and looked out. There, on their knees with ceremonial woven mats laid across their shoulders, was the entire extended family of the man who had murdered her husband, with forty of his fellow-villagers. They had come to bear witness to their collective responsibility, to express their grief and shame, and to offer reparation” (p.290).

Two things strike me about this custom. First, that because the culture has created this symbolic vehicle, the issue of personal sincerity (a big thing in Western-style public apologies)  is avoided. Second, that the custom seems intimately related to the saying “It takes a village to raise a child”: maybe it takes a village to repent a wrong.

Apology #4. D’Amato to Judge Ito in the O.J. Trial

15 07 2010

Marsha Wagner of Columbia University explains what makes an apology good and warns that a bad apology can make a difficult relationship even worse. For more details, see   httpwww.colorado.eduOmbudsApologies1.pdf . The example she gives is as follows:

In 1995 on a radio talk show, Senator D’Amato used an exaggerated, stereotyped Japanese accent to mock Judge Ito, who was presiding at the O.J. Simpson trial. After receiving considerable criticism, the Senator’s office issued the following press release: “If I offended anyone, I’m sorry. I was making fun of the pomposity of the judge and the manner in which he’s dragging the trial out.”

This dismissive and inadequate apology created vehement objections from colleagues, citizens, journalists, and Asian-American groups. The next day, the Senator personally read a better prepared statement in the Senate record: “I’m here on the Senate floor to give a statement as it related to that episode. It was a sorry episode. As an Italian-American, I have a special responsibility to be sensitive to ethnic stereotypes. I fully recognize the insensitivity of my remarks about Judge Ito. My remarks were totally wrong and inappropriate. I know better. What I did was a poor attempt at humor. I am deeply sorry for the pain that I have caused Judge Ito and others. I offer my sincere apologies.”

#2 is certainly better than #1. Here, for the sake of reference,  is my model 5-point apology:

“Sorry for how I spoke to you in front of the boss yesterday (naming behaviour). I was totally out of line (accepting responsibility). It had been a very hard day (explaining) but it shouldn’t have happened (not justifying). Please accept my apology (asking forgiveness) and if there’s anything I can do to make up for it, please say so” (offering to make amends)

In the D’Amato case, the Senator names the behaviour and accepts his responsibility. He explains (“a poor attempt at humour”) without seeking to justify. He acknowledges that his actions have caused pain. He stops short of asking for forgiveness as such, nor does he offer to make amends.

Apology #2, in my view, scores 3 out of 5, while Apology #1 scores a big fat zero.

Apology #3: Rahm Emanuel apologizes for his “fucking retarded” comment.

17 06 2010

Mid last year, in a private strategy meeting, the sometimes foul-mouthed and often controversial Obama Administration’s Chief of Staff at the White House, Rahm Emanuel , used the phrase “fucking retarded” about a group of liberals.

The event was referred to in the US press in the inimical words “ [expletive] retarded”. It was first reported in the Wall Street Journal and followed by a predictable uproar of outrage primarily among advocates of Disabilities groups. Then Emanuel apologized in private to Tim Shriver,  Special Olympics Chief Executive, who had written a complaint to the Chief of Staff on the day it happened.  Shriver reported the fact of the apology and the fact of his acceptance of it. A week later,  Emanuel met with a group of Disabilities advocates, who emerged impressed by the Chief of Staff’s apparent sincerity.

So let’s  have a  look at Emanuel’s apology. I was unable to find a verbatim text, probably because it occurred in a private conversation. The White House subsequently announced that the apology was accepted, adding “The White House remains committed to addressing the concerns and needs of Americans living with disabilities and recognizes that derogatory remarks demean us all.”

Here again is my 5-point apology test.

“Sorry for how I spoke to you in front of the boss yesterday (naming behaviour). I was totally out of line (accepting responsibility). It had been a very hard day (explaining) but it shouldn’t have happened (not justifying). Please accept my apology (asking forgiveness) and if there’s anything I can do to make up for it, please say so” (offering to make amends).

So how does Emanuel’s apology rate?

  1. Is the behaviour being apologized for named?

Assesssment:  It would seem, from the response of those present, that the behaviour – speaking offensively about people living with mental disability – was named and agreed.

Not so the more public White House Press statement, following Emanuel’s private apology. “The White House (so depersonalized that no one is standing up to be counted) remains committed (“remains” is a clever addition – it suggests that their good attitude pre-existed the reprimand)to addressing the concerns and needs of Americans living with disabilities (very PC: ” [Americans] living with disabilities” deliberately puts their humanity first, before their disability, and uses language that the people themselves favour) and recognizes that derogatory remarks demean us all (being so broad and all-encompassing at the same time dilutes  and deligitimizes the specific pain involved).

2. Is responsibility accepted?

Assessment: From reports, it would seem that yes, responsibility was accepted.

Peter Berns, one of those present at the meeting where the apology was given, was reported to have said: “Emanuel seemed genuinely surprised by the outrage he generated and told the advocates that he planned to discuss the situation with his three children so that they could learn from his mistakes… My sense was that this had opened up his eyes in a way that was significant and that the reaction has really touched him… He expressed his apologies and regrets. It struck me as very sincere and heartfelt on his part. I did not at all have the impression that he was going through the paces.”

Of course, you can take the cynical view and figure that the Disabilities lobby group saw this as an apportunity to get nationwide sympathetic publicity. Berg admitted the meeting with Emanuel gave the group a chance  “to establish a personal relationship that we didn’t have before”.

As follow-up, advocates said they expected a positive reception at the White House regarding upcoming proposed legislation. According to “Rosa’s law”, references to “mental retardation” would be replaced with the term “intellectual disability” throughout federal law.

3. Is the account more than a justification?

Assessment:  Yes. It would seem Emanuel pleaded ignorance of the power of his derogatory words.  For one with a reputation for using offensivce language, this lacks some credibility. However,  it is inherent in apologies that they require  face-humbling,  and whilesoever we have difficulty distinguishing the act from the pretense, the latter may be enough.

4. Is forgiveness sought?

Assessment:  Yes. He seems to have been regretful of causing offense and hurt, not just of having been caught out.

5. Are amends being offered?

Assessment: Yes. We can take it as highly unlikely that in future, in public at least, Emanuel will be quite so flippant in his terms of abuse. He had another meeting with self-advocates and disabilities group representatives, who were encouraged to tell their own narratives of personal hurt in the face of discrimination. One of them considered the meeting “a historic moment”, wondering whether “a group of self-advocates has ever ventured into the inner sanctum of the White House”.

Emanuel promised his support to end the use of the R-word, beginning by taking  the Special Olympics pledge which reads: “I pledge and support the elimination of the derogatory use of the R-word from everyday speech and promote the acceptance and inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.” Emanuel added, “this is so important, and I’m glad to support it.”

Of course, it’s always possible that Obama spoke sternly and privately with Emanuel and told him to “fix it”, not wanting another scandal or torrent of hostility from an increasingly disenchanted citizenry. We can’t really know this. All we can do is calculate the attempt to address the face issues entailed in an apology. I’ve scored him 4.5 (I’ve docked 0.5 for the White House statement) out of a possible 5,

Have I been fair?  Too generous perhaps? Too naive? Tell me what you think!

Apology #2. Fergie gets caught taking bribes.

4 06 2010

A few days ago, like newspapers all around the world, The Australian (June 2, 2010) reported the sting that exposed Sarah Ferguson accepting a bribe from a supposed businessman (in fact, a journalist)  for the favour of “opening doors”  – getting access to Prince Andrew.  Not long afterwards,  she flew to USA and recorded an interview with Oprah (for which  one assumes she was paid ) in which she blamed alcohol and economic distress for her “serious lapse in judgment”.

I’m interested in the apology. Specifically, in applying to it my 5-point apology test.

Here, in case it helps, is a sample apology that fulfils all 5 criteria.  “Sorry for how I spoke to you in front of the boss yesterday (naming behaviour). I was totally out of line (accepting responsibility). It had been a very hard day (explaining) but it shouldn’t have happened (not justifying). Please accept my apology (asking forgiveness) and if there’s anything I can do to make up for it, please say so” (offering to make amends).

So how does Fergie’s rate?

  1. Is the behaviour being apologized for named?

Assesssment: No.   She doesn’t directly say she was taking bribes or acting corruptly. She refers to “the situation” or “this” and is uncomfortable about alluding to the event in more specific and transparent terms

2. Is responsibility accepted?

Assessment:  No. She does not deny the facts of the scandal, but her emphasis is on how being caught on film affected her (“devastated”). She confesses it was a “serious lapse in judgment”, but note the choice of the word “lapse”  (“error” would have been stronger) which means a slip or a fall or a letting go. Overtones of a happening that is both minor and possibly accidental. We “let a subscription lapse” – something you do passively by not actually doing something else (i.e re-subscribing) . It almost suggests that the lapse was something that happened to her, even despite her, but certainly not because of her.

3. Is the account more than a justification?

Assessment: No.  She attributes blame for her actions outside herself:  to alcohol (“ I was drinking”) and economic distress (“I was in the gutter”). Again, these factors are cited as if they happened to her (someone made me drink; someone took all my money).

4. Is forgiveness sought?

Assessment:  She says she is “very sorry”. But what she seems most to regret is not trusting her instinct that warned her that the business might be a journalist. N o doubt, she is very sorry for having got caught. This is not the same as seeking forgiveness from those whom she has harmed.

5. Are amends being offered?

Assessment: No. While it is difficult to know what amends may be possible, given that a reputation (Prince Andrew’s) cannot easily be repaired or restored or salvaged. There is no sense that after she’s finished licking her wounds, she might seek help with her issues and try to stay out of the spotlight – for a while, at least.

I scored her apology a grim 0/5.  I confess I’m no royal supporter. In my view, royalty is as antiquated and iniquitous as feudalism. But I have nonetheless tried to be fair in assessing the components of  Fergie’s apology.

Have I been fair? Tell me what you think!

When is an apology an apology?

17 05 2010

Language is slippery. Slopes, ditches, gullies and puddles – all traps where meanings can slither away, never to reappear in the same form. Down there, in that dark, dank environment, apologies – together with denials, evasions, retreats and whitewashings – all rub shoulders, compare notes and plan early retirements.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the domain of public apology, which is so often reduced to farce or fracas. There was the case of Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson  and his so-called apology. First he made some outlandish public statements involving Holocaust denial. Then, following the outrage expressed at his comments, the bishop issued further public statements – containing “regret” about “imprudent remarks”, and about about causing “unnecessary distress”.

Let’s look at the choice of words. First off, “imprudent”. Is this the best he can come up with? That his comments were careless? Lacking prudence? Needing care?   Is this what it’s called when you falsify history, draw demonstrably from a cache of untruths, which you then harness to an anti-Semitic agenda?

With “unnecessary distress” we have no agency, no responsibility spelled out.  On the contrary, “unnecessary” is a veritable reservoir of ambiguity, allowing Williamson to distance himself from any surrounding unpleasantness. The lurking implication is that they who take offence really shouldn’t get so hot under the collar; it’s their reaction that causes these kerfuffles; and if they just took it differently, we could all dispense with the  “unnecessary distress”. In other words, blame the victim for the fuss.

Without doubt, the underlings who draft these texts are skilled at their craft. Political correctness requires a statement, but we’ve reached the point where no one expects that the statement do anything other than fill the slot in the public conversation where a statement is needed.

We’ve forgotten that for an apology to count as an apology, a number of prevailing conditions are required. Ideally, five elements are needed:  the apology should name the behavior that’s happened; accept responsibility for it; offer an excuse or account (but not a justification) for how it came about; ask forgiveness; offer to make amends.

“Sorry for how I spoke to you in front of the boss yesterday (naming behaviour). I was totally out of line (accepting responsibility). It had been a very hard day (explaining) but it shouldn’t have happened (not justifying). Please accept my apology (asking forgiveness) and if there’s anything I can do to make up for it, please say so” (offering to make amends).

We could score an apology out of 5, by asking:

  • Is the behavior being apologized for named?
  • Is responsibility accepted?
  • Is the account more than a justification?
  • Is forgiveness sought?
  • Are amends offered?

Let’s revisit the bishop and his “regret” for  “imprudent remarks”  causing “unnecessary distress”.

  1. The behavior is diminished to the point of “imprudent remarks”, for which “regret” his mentioned. Regret does not of itself constitute an apology.
  2. No responsibility is accepted, other than admitting more care might have been taken.The implication is: if the offended were less touchy about these matters, there wouldn’t be a problem.
  3. No account is given.
  4. Regret does not automatically ask for forgiveness.
  5. No amends are mentioned.

So Bishop Williamson gets a big fat zero.

This article appeared in Spectrum, The Sydney Morning Herald, around the time of PM Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Aboriginal people of Australia.

Sorry about that…

15 05 2010

Love means never having to say you’re sorry.

This line, from Erich Segal’s iconic Love Story, made into a film in 1970, captured the corner on schmaltz and pathos. My apologies to those who feel differently.

I remember having no idea what it meant (either in or out of context), but being too dorkily self-conscious to ever admit it. Looking back, it’s probable that I didn’t reside alone in this self-imposed atoll of shame-filled ignorance. Looking back too, it would seem the naked emperor went on being naked, and getting away with it, for an unprecedented span of time.

But back then, even if I may not have got the meaning, I knew I was confused. The confusion materialized in the way I kept trying to unpack and massage some sense out of the tag-line.  If love meant you never had to say sorry, what was it about love that actually made sorry irrelevant? Was it that love obliterated the possibility of causing a partner hurt or distress,  therefore making sorry obsolete?

If so, what would happen in a case (not too far-fetched I’d’ve thought) when a sorry was called for? Would that mean it wasn’t really love in the first place? Did a sorry negate the love? Could they not co-exist?

Or maybe love-meaning-you-never-had-to-say-sorry meant something else. Like, given the love, even if hurt were possible (something that to me seemed highly probable)  apologies expressed in words  were unnecessary because, of course, the love would reign over the hurt, conquer it, render it insignificant in the larger scheme of things. Because love was premised on an inevitable reconciliation. .

But was this superfluity of wordage limited to sorry statements in a love context?  Or was it of broader application? Was the assertion in fact one that claimed love as chemical, passionate, a form of madness, a kind of pathology like mental disease, invoking the hormones and debilitating rational thought; and being all these things (or some, at least),  was love qualitatively of a character that made words redundant, superfluous, even impositive and extraneous?  Were words out of kilter and congruence with the feeling flow? After all, a communication redolent of “sweet nothings” puts very few demands on the words deployed for the purpose.

Then again, maybe tag-lines like Love Story’s don’t need to make sense. They simply need to suggest and provoke, and in so doing, become memorable. I feel the same about the line from the Janis Joplin song – Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose but I’ll save that rumination for another day.