Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Bad Public Apologies
So much to choose from this week. It’s tax day in the US, and those pesky tax forms have much to tell us—or at least me, who has demonstrated before that I can geek out about tax accounting and its genres. I might tackle that topic next week—or next year, around this same time.
Because it’s hard to resist the other big topic this week—apologies. Or rather, lack of apologies. Or just plain bad apologies.
First up is United CEO, Oscar Munoz. After security officers dragged a limp and eventually bleeding doctor from his seat on a United flight, United issued this “apology”:
"This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United," he said. "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers."
Oh, poor United employees. I’m sure Dr. Dao feels so bad for having upset you. But clearly you had no choice. You had to “re-accommodate” people, so what could you do? After all, United employees clearly come first—including United crew who need those seats and required re-accommodation.
Wow. That is an apology so bad it’s hard to unpack it all. According to psychologist Harriet Lerner’s criteria for a good apology (check out my first post on apologies for more), here’s what makes a good apology:
Munoz’s apology may have been sincere and genuine, but it wasn’t much of an apology to Dr. Dao or customers, but only to employees. Having to re-accommodate customers is a flat-out excuse and avoidance of responsibility. Hey, he had no choice. And you know it’s going to happen again, with a non-apology like that.
Munoz’s next bad step was sending an email to United employees blaming Dao for the problem, even though he had not been at all unruly before refusing to disembark to accommodate United employees. And Munoz said he stood “emphatically” behind the employees. No apology there, except perhaps for the poor United employees having to deal with Dr. Dao’s “defiance”—and the bad PR that the employees were surely dealing with after the video went viral.
So maybe he did better the next time around. Cuz you also know there’s going to have to be a next time.
Well, he finally got the hang of it—or somebody who understood good apologies finally told him what to say:
"The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.
Let's check out the good apology criteria:
You’d almost think he’d read Lerner’s book.
Finally, well done. But well done too late. By this point, the impression is far too obvious that he doesn’t get it, that United culture and CEO cares more about employees than customers, and that any apology is probably more of a PR requirement than a genuine apology.
United stock plummets. #BoycottUnitedAirlines takes off on Twitter, along with a fun series of New United Airlines Mottos or Slogans, including
In my previous posts on apologies, besides laying out Lerner’s good advice on how to make a good apology, I looked at the apologies of such public figures at the time as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as well as my dentist’s office (well, maybe not such a public figure, but definitely a bad apology). But United’s apology is a different kind of fiasco. It’s public in an economic way. The brand United Airlines has been damaged significantly by the event and by Munoz’s bad handling of it. United stock has fallen.
Apologies from companies have some different rhetorical exigencies, to be fancy about it. The situation is different. Munoz isn’t apologizing for actions he took but for the actions of his employees (and not even only his employees in the end, since it seems to be security forces from the Chicago police who dragged Dr. Dao out). When he apologizes for the specific actions, he’s inevitably disapproving his employees’ actions, even if they followed company policy—a tough position for a boss. The commitment not to repeat is probably as much a commitment to avoid such public nightmares in the future as it is a commitment not to behave badly. The sincere and genuine regret might be more for the PR headache than any ethical regret for bad acts. To be fair to Munoz, of course, I don’t know his motives or what’s in his head. I just know he butchered the act of apologizing until the very end, when the badness of his first apology must have been staring him in the face—and threatening his job.
A good apology from the start wouldn’t have fixed everything for such a huge customer relations disaster, but it wouldn’t have made it worse.
Speaking of making it worse—this past week also brought Sean Spicer.
Spicer isn’t speaking for a corporation, like Munoz, but he is representing someone else, the President. Much as he tried to deny that after his huge gaffe this week.
At a press briefing, Spicer asserted that Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons. When asked for clarification, he made it worse—well, not like Assad did, not on “innocent . . .into the middle of towns.” Whew. He almost said that Hitler didn’t use the chemicals on innocent people.
"I mistakenly used an inappropriate and insensitive reference about the Holocaust and there is no comparison," he said. "For that I apologize. It was a mistake to do that."
And on Passover, even.
This press secretary gaffe and apology differs from Munoz’s apology for United. For one thing, Spicer is the one who acted badly, the one who should express sincere regret, the one who should promise not to let it happen again. And yet he does represent another brand, the president of the United States. Just as Munoz has to stand for United, Spicer stands for Trump. When Spicer acts badly, it reflects badly on the president.
It seems then that there’s another requirement for Spicer's apology—he has to take responsibility so fully that he disconnects himself from the person he represents. Where Munoz has to stand for all of United and cannot speak as an individual, Spicer has to stand away from the president and convince people he does speak only as an individual. Taking full responsibility for his actions becomes even more important than sincerity or even commitment not to do it again. When Spicer speaks he represents the president—until he makes a mistake, when he doesn’t. Presidents don’t make mistakes and don’t apologize. The humbling that apologies require is tough on everyone, even me. But humbling a powerful politician or a president—even tougher, challenging their very identity.
Apologies are always tricky, as Lerner’s work and the many examples that keep popping up demonstrate. Especially tricky here, I think, is to apologize in the public eye, to apologize for actions not your own, or to apologize for actions that are your own but that others are blamed for. After all, the White House statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day omitted any reference to Jew or Judaism. Observers see a pattern here.
So add another layer of complexity to the ongoing series on apologies. This week makes apologizing on my own behalf for my own actions to the people I’ve harmed seem relatively easy, and I’ve certainly messed that up more than a time or two. But at least I wasn’t humiliated in public and didn’t get somebody else in trouble. My stock did drop a bit, though, as it always does when someone issues a bad apology. I’m still working to recover, as are Sean Spicer and Oscar Munoz. And oh yeah, I didn’t lose my job over a bad apology. Spicer and Munoz? Yet to be seen.
Some bad actions can’t be repaired by regret. Sometimes an apology isn’t enough.
But let's finish with trying to see some humor in the bad apologies, through the satiric character Spicey’s bad attempt at an apology from Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live. As s/he says about the Jews being sent to “concentration clubs” on trains, “Hey, at least they didn’t have to fly United.”
Bad Apologies, Bad Feelings
How do apologies affect the apologizee?
Comic photograph of army officers cleaning their friend's teeth
Thanks to Sune Auken, Carolyn Miller, and a very bad dental hygienist, I’ve continued thinking about apologies.
I’ll start with the more trivial story. It will take me a little longer than my usual post.
Last week I went to my regular 3-month teeth cleaning (a 3-month cleaning schedule is the reward for having some deep pockets, and not the good kind). My regular dental hygienist had dislocated her thumb and was having thumb surgery the next day, so I had a substitute, a hygienist brought in part-time to cover those appointments.
This is going to get a bit graphic, so those with weak stomachs might look away.
This hygienist had an unusual style—she cleaned my teeth without any rinsing or suctioning or spitting. When she finally stopped polishing, I left my mouth gaping, waiting for her to finally suction out all the gritty polish sitting on my tongue and in my mouth. Nothin’. I finally had to swallow all the nasty gunk so I could speak, and choked out “I was waiting for you to rinse and suction!” “Huh,” she shrugged.
That continued through the scraping and the flossing. yuck
And then the final rinse. She sprayed and sprayed and sprayed and sprayed. And sprayed. No suction, just spraying. I was gurgling with all the water collected in my throat. Finally, I had to move her hand away from my mouth and swallow, hard. “I was drowning!” I gasped. “Huh,” she said. Then she brought in the suction. “Do your teeth feel rinsed now?” she asked. Yep, yep, they do. Let me outta this chair.
image of I'm Outta Here memecrunch.com
If you’ve been looking away, you can rejoin the story now, because now comes the part relevant to apologies.
That evening, I received an email from the business asking me to rate them. OK, I decided. I wasn’t going to say anything, but they want to know. So I sent a private email instead of a public rating. I described my gagging experience with the hygienist and suggested she wasn’t doing their business any favors. The next day, I received a response from the “Front Office” and a woman I’ll call “Arlene.” Since her message ended with one of those business confidential statements, I’ll have to paraphrase and won't be able to capture her tone.
Arlene said she apologized sincerely, though "we" were surprised that I had a bad experience with a hygienist so experienced in their office. She explained that, in the future, my “options” were to see a different hygienist in their office or see my regular dentist (rather than these specialists).
I was ticked off. Trying to figure out why—after all, she did sincerely apologize, never said the word "but," and vowed not to repeat it—I saw in the original apology a clear message that I was somehow perceiving an offense that could not possibly have occurred (they were surprised; the hygienist had over 25 years experience with them) AND that if I didn’t like it I could go elsewhere. The message to me? I was wrong, and now I had done something wrong.
I replied to the email with a few more details (which I thought showed clearly that there had been a real problem), protested that I was not especially particular about hygienists and had used many different ones successfully over the years with them, and said that I could indeed go back to seeing only my dentist and not their practice if that was preferable. Like I said, I was a little ticked off. But now I also felt on the defensive, that I had to convince them there really had been something that deserved an apology. I wasn't to blame.
I’m sorry to say that Arlene replied with a brief, cheery email, pleased that I hadn’t had any other bad experiences with them and hoping that my original hygienist won’t injure herself again so that I never ever have to see anyone else ever. Oh, and a smiley face.
Now I don’t want to be too hard on this poor front office representative trying to make me happy. But I do want to notice my emotional reaction to that apology. There’s more to an apology than just hitting the key elements (and Harriet Lerner will have much more to say about apologies in her full book). Most of all, I want to notice the very real impact that apologies can have not just on the apologizer—Lochte losing endorsement deals—but also on the apologizee.
Like a bad teeth cleaning, receiving a bad apology can make you feel worse than when you started.
Perhaps it has something to do with belittlement. A bad apology belittles the apologizee, the person getting the apology.
Carolyn Miller, in the Comments to my last Monday post, shared a link to a great youtube video posted August 23 by ArgueLab on Public Apologies.
In it rhetorician Jay Heinrichs points to the same three recent apologizers—Lochte, Clinton, and Trump—and suggests that the reason public figures have so much trouble apologizing is that “an apology is an act of self-belittlement.” And that’s hard for public figures. So he offers four tips for good apologies: own up to it, focus on your own emotions, describe your mistake as an exception to the rule of your usual behavior, and fix the mistake.
The rhetorical strategies agree nicely with the ones I listed from psychologist Lerner. After all, emotions and empathy are a big part of both rhetoric and psychology, and they’re a big part of apologies.
But any apology "is an act of self-belittlement," not just the apology of public figures. And when the apologizer can't perform the act the apology genre requires, they can pass the emotion on to the person they're apologizing to. Since I can't accept the emotion of having made a mistake, there must be something wrong with you.
The apology I received from Arlene left me feeling belittled. Rather than her accepting self-belittlement for the business through her apology, even privately, she belittled my experience, and me. Aristotle said, according to ArgueLab’s video, that “the main cause of anger is belittlement.” I felt belittled, so I felt angry. As I said, ticked off.
The main cause of anger is belittlement"
Public figures and businesses aren’t the only ones who have trouble with the self-belittlement of an apology. Parents, too, can struggle with apologizing to children. Sune Auken pointed out in a series of painfully clear tweets that apologies from parents often belittle children
The child receives an apology, and yet feels blamed. So many apologies, as Sune explains, give the apologizer power and let the apologizer abuse the apologizee.
“I’m sorry, but you made me do that”
“I’m sorry, but if you weren’t so sensitive”
“I’m sorry that you feel that way”
Our feelings can be hurt before an apology and again by an apology.
To really see an apology at work, we need to see the one receiving it as well as the one giving it. That’s true of all genres.
And we need to see the emotions at play in an apology, whether regret or belittlement. That’s true of all genres, too.
Genres have emotional impact on people who receive them.
Genres do things to people as well as for people
image of Succhiotto by Simona Z flickr
Did I make too much of Arlene’s less-than-skillful apology? Feel free to tell me in the comments. What other genres do you notice that have strong emotional impact? What other genres hide their impact in supposed good intent?