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Say you're sorry

As a veteran of many mistakes in judgment leading to foolish, embarrassing, and self-destructive actions, I can offer some advice to public figures about the form and content of apologies.

What doesn’t work. This is an age of the non-apologizing apology, which typically begins, “I’m sorry if I offended anyone ...” Let’s be clear about this, Bunky. You would not be standing in public with your family gathered around you to issue an apology unless someone had been offended, big time.

Why it doesn’t work. That “if I offended anyone” suggests something on the lines of “I regret that hypersensitive people overreacted.” People are on to this dodge. It no longer works. Give up on trying to weasel out of what you said/did.

Take responsibility. The more you try to explain the context and present an explanation of why you did it, the more you will sound like someone trying to justify what you did or said. So just admit that it’s your fault.

Say you’re sorry. Don’t squirm. Don’t wallow. You offended, and you regret it. Tell all the relevant parties that you regret it. Don’t go on about how much you’re disappointed in yourself for failing to live up to your own high standards. Nobody cares about that. Focus on the people you injured.

Move on. You’ve got some rehabilitation to do. The first thing: Whatever you did wrong, don’t do it again. To accomplish that, you may need to talk through with specialized help how you are an insensitive nimrod and how to behave better. You might be able to reconcile with the person or persons you offended, but that’s up to them, not you. You’re going to have to show the collateral parties—family, friends, colleagues, the public—that you can behave more responsibly, and that is going to require time to rebuild trust and your reputation.

You screwed up because you’re human and therefore inherently prone to error. (Editors understand this more clearly than anyone but theologians and defense attorneys.) Forgiveness and reconciliation are possible, but they won’t happen unless you first take responsibility for yourself.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:20 AM | | Comments (12)


Nice post, Mr. McIntyre (especially since you have eloquently put into words what I've felt for a long time). It reminds me of the excellent example given in Luke 18:13. But I am curious what brought the subject to your mind today. Did some public figure recently display ignorance in just what a real apology looks like?


I saw a tweet mentioning some unnamed figure who had issued an "if I offended" non-apology and was prompted to write the post but not to click on the link to identify the latest weasel.

This "latest weasel" is most likely fungible with any other example we could come up with anyway. Your advice is unversally applicable, whether a figure is public or private.

When I was in charge of counselor training for a YMCA day camp decades ago, one of our sessions was on how to show the kids we truly cared for them. I brought out the phrase, "I love you, but ... ," and explained that if you really love someone you'll get your "but" out of there.

Same thing goes for apologies.

Sometimes when my wife and I have disagreed, I will, later in the day, approach with head bowed and say, "I'm sorry you were wrong."

It never seems to go over quite as well as I expect it should.

In short: confession, contrition, promise of amendment, which are the necessary ingredients of the Sacrament of Penance.

Excellent advice, which, sadly, won't be followed by anyone who needs to follow it. But still, it's excellent. And I love that you use "nimrod" the same way I do.

Ah. 'Nimrod'. Unlike Barbara Anderson, I was both startled and stumped by your use of the word. I'm Australian, but read a lot of American writing, and have never encountered that usage. Will I have to unlearn my respect for the Bible, my affection for Sydney's Nimrod St Theatre and my love of Elgar's Enigma Variations?

Scripture and Elgar notwithstanding, in American English a nimrod is not a hunter but a dolt, thanks in part to Bugs Bunny.

In these tryin' times, when nearly everyone is 'offended' by nearly everything someone else says or does, if the worst one can do is'offend,' one is probably ahead of the game. It's hardly a mortal sin, and so far, it isn't a crime. So far. (I too love Nimrod the Mighty Hunter, Mr Bunny notwithstanding.)

In light of Patricia's comment, I think I would add, "Don't apologize unless you actually did something wrong." I'm thinking of someone several years ago who apologized for using the word "niggardly." He should have said, "Grow up and buy a dictionary. Or are you too niggardly to make that expenditure?"

@Valerie (Kyriosity): If I'm thinking of the same situation you are, he didn't just apologize; he resigned his position.

As an editor, I was infuriated by this story at the time.

Yes, I think that's the fellow I was remembering.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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