Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
"I’m sorry. So sorry. Please accept my apology. But love is blind. And I was too blind to see”
Apologies have been in the news a lot these past few days. So today a rapid scan of some apology stories—from politicians to more politicians, and a few Olympic swimmers thrown into the pool just for fun.
What apologies do is clearer than many genres--the very act of apologizing makes the apology happen. (For the scholars among my readers, yes, the apology is a speech act, too.) And they happen in some pretty typical ways in pretty common situations--"I'm sorry for doing that. I won't do it again." They're also a genre with a pretty clear standard for good and bad. Good apologies make you feel better. Bad apologies just tick you off--or maybe that's just me.
I was fortunate last week to hear psychologist Harriet Lerner practice her sold-out TEDx talk on making good apologies. In Lerner's talk and a column in Psychology Today "You Call THAT an Apology," she explains what makes a good apology:
Apologies can be serious business, and I can imagine an entire book on the genre. Oh wait, Harriet Lerner is coming out with one, at least from the perspective of a clinical psychologist, though not perhaps seeing the world through genre-colored glasses.
Without yet developing my own treatise on the apology genre, I noticed a few recent events involving apologies, both good and bad.
One is Donald Trump on Friday, August 19, expressing his "regret" for some things he has said, according to the New York Times:
Trump explains that “in the heat of debate” “you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing. I have done that. And believe it or not I regret it.” He goes on, “And I do regret it. Particularly where it may have caused personal pain”
Is that an apology from Donald Trump? Several news headlines called it that. I don't know whether Lerner would accept "I regret it" as the same as "I'm sorry." Surely Brenda Lee sings it better, though she fails the apology test by excusing herself with "But love is blind." Trump does not add any "but"s, so he hits one of the key elements (unless describing the heat of debate offers an excuse).
I'm pretty sure he fails the specificity test--admitting that some wrong words "may" have caused personal pain (what did he say? who was hurt?). And he may not be committed to not repeating the offense since he follows his statement of regret with a complaint that too much is being made of "these issues" and a promise to "always tell you the truth."
Another caution by Lerner in a Huffington Post column might be relevant here:
People can apologize for what they do. They cannot apologize for who they are.”
The other side in the US presidential campaign certainly has had her own issues with apologies, if not one as recent. The demand for Hillary Clinton to apologize for using her personal email account for State Department work was loud and insistent. Among other responses, on September 8, 2015, she posted this apology to her Facebook account
This apology has the benefit of a direct Brenda Lee "I'm sorry" and being specific about what she is taking responsibility for. And in this one she offers no "but" excuses, though the "key facts" may come off as excusing the action. She goes on to vow transparency, so that appears to be a commitment not to repeat the offense. Seems like a good apology, even if it didn't end the discussion by making everyone feel better.
Hillary Clinton wasn't the only one in the family to have had issues with apologies. August 17 was the anniversary of a 1998 address by President Bill Clinton. Rather than apologizing for the Monica Lewinsky affair, President Clinton in that address avoided saying I'm sorry and attacked his prosecutors. Not until September, weeks later, did President Clinton confess "I sinned" and admit that he needed to offer an apology with “genuine repentance, a determination to change and to repair breaches of my own making. I have repented.”
His apology then seemed to fit the criteria of a good apology--genuine, specific, committed to change (we can always hope). But many complained that the repentance should have come sooner. Perhaps in her full-length treatment Lerner will include a requirement that apologies be timely, hitting the kairotic moment. As Ryan Tedder and OneRepublic might say, "It's too late to apologize."
One more current event involving apologies. Ryan Lochte and three other US Olympic swimmers in Rio de Janeiro were involved in an incident at a gas station that was either an armed robbery (according to Lochte's initial account) or a "negotiation" for damages done after the swimmers vandalized the gas station. Security footage seems to show something other than an armed robbery, and the negotiations for apologies abound.
People make mistakes. The good people acknowledge those mistakes at the time and apologize. That's what apologies do. They let life go on.
I'd be happy to hear your own tales of good and bad apologies, either in the news or in your life. Please feel free to comment below.
And just in case I have offended, in this or any previous post, let me just offer a bad apology:
I'm sorry, so sorry, for anything I might have done. I promise not to do it again (if I can figure out what I did).