It seems that every day another man in a position of power is publicly apologizing for his sexual misdeeds. Some of these apologies, like that of restaurant entrepreneur Mario Batali, have the ring of sincerity. Others, like those of movie impresario Harvey Weinstein, are so fake that they add insult to injury.
Fake apologies come in many forms:
- "I'm sorry if you were offended."
- "I'm sorry that you feel that way."
- "I'm sorry that this happened."
- "I'm sorry. Now that I've said that I'm sorry, can we talk about something else?"
- "I'm sorry, but I remember things differently."
- "I'm sorry, but there were extenuating circumstances."
- "I'm sorry, but times were different back then."
- "I'm sorry, but I didn't know you'd react that way."
- "I'm sorry, but I had good intentions that were misunderstood."
All fake apologies, regardless of their specific structure, have the same purpose: to absolve the perpetrator of blame and responsibility by repositioning the perpetrator as the victim and the victim as the perpetrator.
For example, "I'm sorry if anyone is offended" implies that the real problem lies not in the perpetrator's behavior but in the touchiness of the person who was offended.
Similarly, "I'm sorry that this happened" implies that perpetrator is a victim of circumstance and that, by blaming the perpetrator, the actual victim is being unfair.
Again, "I'm sorry, but there were extenuating circumstances" (e.g., "I had a difficult childhood") shifts blame to the victims, who now are expected to think of the perpetrator as the victim of circumstance and that they (the real victims) are being unreasonable.
By contrast, sincere apologies aim blame and responsibility directly at the perpetrator who is apologizing, without shifting any responsibility whatsoever onto the victims. Sincere apologies thus always contain these five elements:
- Admission of guilt ("I did a hurtful thing.")
- Admission of responsibility ("I knew it was hurtful.")
- Admission of harm ("My actions hurt you.")
- Admission of shame ("I am ashamed I did that thing.")
- Commitment to change ("I will never do it again.")
Sincere apologies don't contain a request for forgiveness, because that's putting a demand on the victims, who might feel badly if they don't feel forgiving. If victims want to forgive the perpetrator, that's their business; perpetrators don't have the right to ask.
Sincere apologies also do not contain public promises to make amends (e.g., "I will endow a charity"), because such promises serve only to refurbish the perpetrator's image. If the perpetrator makes amends, it should be done privately.
You might note that the sample phrases for a sincere apology don't contain the words "I'm sorry" or "I apologize." This is intentional. Those words appear so frequently in fake apologies that they've lost much of their original meaning.
Regardless of the words used, though, any apology that lacks one or more of the five elements isn't sincere.