We live in an age of apologies, yet most people are terrible at giving them.
As diversity and inclusion scholars who have studied apologies closely, we now watch someone begin one as we watch an Olympic diver begin a dive — Will they nail the takeoff? Will they enter the water with minimal splash? Usually, they do not.
Think of disgraced US Representative George Santos, who said: “If I disappointed anyone by resume embellishment, I am sorry,” while also arguing that he “never claimed to be Jewish” — just “‘Jew-ish.’” The chancellor of Purdue University Northwest also floundered when he apologized for brazenly mocking Asian languages during a recent commencement ceremony. Minimizing the offense, he said he was sorry for his “unplanned, off-the-cuff response to another speaker,” adding that he “did not intend to be hurtful.”
The happy news is that you can learn to do better. We believe all strong apologies contain the “four Rs” of recognition, responsibility, remorse, and redress.
The first component of an effective apology is to recognize the harm. A common mistake is to offer what comedian Harry Shearer has dubbed an “ifpology,” such as “I’m sorry if I offended you,” or “I’m sorry if you take it that way.” Ellen DeGeneres uttered an ifpology after allegations that her iconic talk show was a toxic workplace: “If I’ve ever let someone down, if I’ve ever hurt their feelings, I am so sorry for that.” Such statements make the harm seem uncertain. If you’re genuinely unsure whether you hurt someone, why not ask?
This isn’t just about the word “if”: Any vague or qualifying language has the same effect as an ifpology. So does a request for blanket immunity: “Whatever I did, I’m sorry.” We’ve both received apologies like this, and they fell flat because they were too general, as if the person couldn’t be bothered to explore or acknowledge what they’d done. True recognition requires an unblinking look at the harm.
Where an “ifpology” fails to recognize harm, a “butpology” fails to take responsibility for it.
Roseanne Barr offered a remarkable butpology when she tried to excuse a racist tweet by noting: “It was 2 in the morning and I was Ambien tweeting.” As in Barr’s case, people often deny responsibility by appealing to extenuating circumstances, such as “I’m sorry, but I was having a miserable day.” Another classic example is deflecting to intent — “I’m sorry, but I didn’t mean it.”
Sometimes, providing context for your actions or noting your intentions can be helpful. Depending on how severe your behavior was, the other person might feel less of a negative impact if they learn you acted out of character or harmed them by accident. The key question is whether you’re offering the information to excuse your behavior or to help the affected person assess the harm in its full context. Are you saying, “Please let me off the hook because it wasn’t the real me,” or are you saying, “It was the real me, but not the me I aspire to be”?
Remorse is the crux of an apology — an acknowledgment you’ve caused someone pain and want to make it right. For this reason, it might seem like the simplest component of an apology. Yet here be dragons as well.
People often fail at this step either by underdoing or overdoing the expression of remorse, both of which we call a “fauxpology.” A gobsmacking form of underdoing remorse came from celebrity chef Mario Batali, who published an apology in his newsletter in response to sexual harassment allegations with the following note at the end: “P.S. In case you’re searching for a holiday-inspired breakfast, these Pizza Dough Cinnamon Rolls are a fan favorite.” He added a picture of the rolls and a link to the recipe.
Less intuitively, you can offer a fauxpology by overdoing the remorse with a melodramatic speech about how awful you feel and what a bad person you are. As diversity consultant Lily Zheng notes, such a theatrical display can deflect attention from the harm and put pressure on the injured person to comfort you.
Here, the middle road is often the best one — a plainspoken statement of regret that comes from the heart.
The final component of an effective apology is redress — taking tangible steps to repair the damage. During the racial justice uprisings of 2020, elected officials and corporations in Charlotte, N.C., gave thoughtful apologies for the city’s role in perpetuating racism and made written commitments to drive policy reform. Yet as the Charlotte Observer reported six months later, some activists felt little had changed. “It’s not enough to say, ‘I apologize,’” noted Corine Mack, a board member of a local racial justice organization. “The way you heal the wrong is to correct the harm that was done.”
We call an apology without redress a “talkpology.” Unsurprisingly, research indicates that pairing a statement of apology with redress is more likely to lead to forgiveness than offering a statement alone.
Putting it all together
Giving an authentic apology isn’t like completing a checklist, so you can’t work through the elements of recognition, responsibility, remorse, and redress mechanically. The four Rs can, however, serve as useful guideposts to ensure you’re on the right path.
Comedian Tina Fey once said she was “opting out” of the “culture of demanding apologies” after being criticized in 2015 for alleged racism in her TV show “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” But opting out is no longer an option. In recent years, social justice movements have drawn attention to a wider variety of harms, and social media platforms have made mistakes ever more visible. And in 2020, Fey herself showed us how a good apology is done. Responding to criticism of episodes of her show “30 Rock” that featured actors in blackface, Fey observed: “As we strive to do the work and do better in regards to race in America, we believe that these episodes featuring actors in race-changing makeup are best taken out of circulation.” Fey continued: “I understand now that ‘intent’ is not a free pass for white people to use these images. I apologize for pain they have caused. Going forward, no comedy-loving kid needs to stumble on these tropes and be stung by their ugliness. I thank NBCUniversal for honoring this request.”
In this short and simple apology, Fey recognized the harm of blackface to comedy-loving kids, took responsibility for causing pain, exhibited remorse, and engaged in redress by using her clout to have the episodes removed. That wasn’t so hard, was it?
Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow are the faculty director and executive director of the Meltzer Center for Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging at NYU School of Law, and co-authors of “Say the Right Thing: How to Talk about Identity, Diversity, and Justice.”