Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
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.”