• The Phony Apology, and What We Can Do About It
  by Dan Lawton

“I am sorry you were offended by my comments.” (Billy Packer, after insulting two female students at Duke University)

“It was a missed opportunity causing needless offense, which I deeply regret. . . . I should have been more clear in dissociating myself from . . . racial prejudice.” (Gov. George W. Bush, about speaking at Bob Jones University before the South Carolina Republican primary election in 2000)

“ I'm sorry it happened, and I'm sorry for all the people, fans and family that it hurt. Let's move on.” (Pete Rose about his fourteen years of lies about betting on baseball)

What do these statements have in common?

None admits any mistake or personal responsibility. None manifests sincere contrition. None comes close to meeting the Webster's dictionary definition of an apology (“an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret”).

None is an apology according to what your mom taught you as a kid.

Ours is the age of the phony apology. By it, the sinner disdains contrition for the dirt he has done. Afterward, the sinner often offers the phony apology's kissing cousin: “Let's move on.” In the end, the phony apologizer succeeds only in unmasking his true self – an unrepentant, self-serving chump – and in angering or hurting the victim even more.

We are sick of such apologies. Yet they keep on coming, seemingly in more profusion than ever before. Some of those responsible are our own kind – lawyers.

Jeff Kichaven had this to say on the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Daily Journal recently (on January 30, 2004): “[D]on't apologize in the conventional way. Apologize in a way that admits no liability or fault. Self-flagellation is not required. Any sentence that begins with ‘I'm sorry’ and continues with some recognition of the other side's human condition will do.”


Kichaven's cheerful advocacy of the false apology isn't based on morality or ethics. Instead, Kichaven tells us, the un-sorry wrongdoer can improve his bargaining position in mediation by pretending to be sorry for what he did. As evidence for this, Kichaven offers his own experience – a mock mediation of the Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad case (in which Kichaven participated in 2001 during an MCLE presentation to ABA members). “Did this ever put magic in the air!” Kichaven exclaims about the effect the phony apology offered by the actor playing the railroad owner to the actor portraying Mrs. Palsgraf. What do you know – the mock lawsuit settled! “There was no admission of liability or fault,” gushes Kichaven. Kichaven's message is clear: give a phony apology, settle your case.

This is garbage, and every lawyer ought to reject it as such. Rather than heal, phony apologies arouse anger instead. There is plenty of empirical data for this, and it doesn't arise from mock mediations conducted at bar association MCLE presentations. It arises from real life.

In a case involving abuse of human remains by an English crematorium, the crematorium issued the sort of counterfeit mea culpa advocated by Kichaven (“expressing regret at the distress the alleged incident has caused”). The dead woman's son didn't accept it: “Expressing regret for an incident they don't even acknowledge is no apology at all.” Thomas Kowalski, the convicted killer of his estranged wife, told a packed courtroom he was a “victim of deceit and betrayal” by his victim before acknowledging the family's pain: “And for that, I am truly sorry.” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel decried the statement for what it was: “[I]t was the sort of non-apology apology, the sort of self-rationalization masquerading as regret that is worse than no apology at all.”

An editorial (translated into English, perhaps a little imprecisely) published by Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. recently described a study aimed at measuring the physiological and psychological reactions of robbery victims to apologies and restitution from the thieves. The result of restitution and a “strong apology”? “[I]t really helps them to forgive.” Where no restitution was paid (but nevertheless “a strong apology along the lines of ‘I'm really sorry, I feel like a worm for doing this to you'”), there was the “almost equivalent effect.” And the result of a “weak apology” (“such as ‘Oh yah [sic], I'm sorry”)? It “was as good as no apology at all and made some people swear a lot.”

So much for the supposedly “magical” effect Kichaven ascribes to the sort of phony apology he advocates.

What's wrong with the phony apologizer? If you ask Kichaven, nothing – he's a smart negotiator. But that is precisely the problem with the phony apologizer. What Kichaven sees as a virtue is nothing but good old selfishness. The phony apologizer truly seeks only to better his position. Billy Packer said in his email he was “sorry” two young women were offended not because he cared about them, but because his job at CBS was at stake. George W. Bush sent his phony baloney “apology” to Cardinal O'Connor not because he was sorry, but because he wanted the votes of New York Catholics in that state's upcoming primary election. And Pete Rose is “sorry,” sort of, because he thinks it will help him into the Hall of Fame (and possibly back into the dugout) and sell books.

How about doing the right thing?

As children, my brothers and I involuntarily learned a prayer called the Act of Contrition. It went like this: “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, . . . I firmly resolve . . . to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”

Of course religion isn't for everyone. But is there a better apology than the Act of Contrition? Being “heartily sorry.” Acknowledging offense given. Detesting one's mistake. Firmly resolving to do penance and amend one's life.

Now that's an apology.

All we need to do is substitute the name of the injured person for God's – and we've got one ass-kicking apology (so long as uttered honestly, and followed with the action promised).

If any of the unsorry weasels discussed in this column had uttered an act of contrition, they'd have said this:

“I was rude. My bad. I want to make it up to you ladies. How about lunch on me next time I have a game at Duke?”

“It was dumb. I admit it. I'll never go to Bob Jones University again – unless it's to confront them on their bigotry.”

“I lied to you for fourteen years. I broke the rules. I vilified a good man, Bart Giamatti. I'm ashamed of myself. I'm sorry for what I did. I have no excuses. I don't ask to be let back into baseball or into the Hall of Fame. I'm going to donate 50% of the profits from my book sales to a charity selected by Bart Giamatti's family, to whom I'm going to apologize in person tomorrow.”

What to do next time you go to mediation and hear an act of faux contrition from someone like Mr. Kichaven? Tell him you've got no time for his weasel words. Say, “don't tell me you're sorry when you're not really sorry.” Then: walk out. Vote with your feet. Start a movement. Let's stamp out the phony apology virus one mediation at a time.

What to do next time I do something wrong? Swallow my pride, schedule a personal appointment with the other person, make an honest Act of Contrition to him – then go do my penance.

Only in this way can we truly “move on” when harm is done.

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