'Sorry' state of affairs

By Catherine Masters

Apologies have flowed from public figures. Catherine Masters finds that some work - and some don't.

"I'm really, really sorry ... I apologise unreservedly. I offer a complete and utter retraction. I deeply regret any distress that my comments may have caused you, or your family, and I hereby undertake not to repeat any such slander at any time in the future."
- An all-time classic apology from John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda

John Cleese, while being dangled upside down by his feet out of a window, uttered a glorious get-out-of-trouble apology in the film A Fish Called Wanda.

Yes, his character Archie was under a fair amount of duress when he said: "I'm really, really sorry... I apologise unreservedly. I offer a complete and utter retraction. The imputation was totally without basis in fact and was in no way fair comment and was motivated purely by malice and I deeply regret any distress that my comments may have caused you, or your family, and I hereby undertake not to repeat any such slander at any time in the future."

This apology is cited as a model apology in a blog by John Kador, author of a book called Effective Apology, who points out the only drawback is that it is coerced.

After all, the villain of the film, Kevin Kline's Otto, was hanging Cleese out the window at the time.

Regardless, this was a strategic apology of the first order and if you fiddle about with the odd word you could make it fit pretty much any situation.

But then, perhaps, you're well and truly over the apology, as God is in Monty Python's Holy Grail when he tells King Arthur off for grovelling - "And don't apologise! Every time I try to talk to someone it's 'Sorry this' or 'Forgive me that' or 'I'm not worthy!"'

King Arthur goes on to avert his eyes, but the point is the spate of very public apologies in recent weeks and years, both here and abroad, may have left you feeling, like God - apology-drained.

Seems everyone's at it; politicians, sportspeople, celebrities, CEOs and heads of state apologising for historical wrongs - Helen Clark to the Chinese, Kevin Rudd to the aborigines, Gordon Brown to child migrants.

Tony Blair once apologised for the potato famine in Ireland, "despite not having been a greengrocer at the time of the tragic event," wrote Rob Liddell in the Spectator, placing this apology in the "meaningless" category.

Has the public apology had its day? We asked some home-grown experts what they think about apologies.

The spin doctor

Brian Edwards is no fan of the grovelling apology.

If you have to apologise, do it cleanly and quickly, he advises clients who come for advice on dealing with the media.

The clients who need to apologise, usually in his case retailers where something has gone wrong, are told the apology should not be over-the-top.

"It shouldn't be some sort of massive tear-stained mea culpa, it should be kept in perspective."

The Tiger Woods apology was ridiculously over-the-top and not credible, says Edwards. He thinks Woods should not have apologised at all.

"I think ... most people would have felt 'well, look why are you apologising to us?"'

Inside the Tiger apology was a terrible egotism, which says "I've let down the world."

"Actually, I was thinking, hold on a minute, you haven't let me down and I actually don't give a stuff about this whole business."

There are good apologies, but these are not the ones where people get down on their knees asking for forgiveness.

"The thing with a lot of these issues is that the more you make of them, the bigger they appear to be. That's why I say, don't make too much of it, have some perspective, so if you say 'look, too right, I shouldn't have bought those two bottles of wine, bloody stupid, I'm going to give the money back and I'm not going to do it again', I think most people would say 'ah well, fair enough, we all make mistakes'.

"But if you come on and do this whole ritualistic hara-kiri, I think then people think God, this must have been big, this must be serious or he wouldn't have done that."

And an apology will ring hollower the longer it's left, Edwards says.

Act leader Rodney Hide took too long to apologise for his use of taxpayer money when he took his partner on holiday, though Edwards did admire the apology from Telecom boss Paul Reynolds over the XT debacle, who came out saying this is a terrible business and we have to fix it, but "you think you're pissed off, I'm more pissed off than you are".

The moral philosopher

Professor Denis Dutton of Canterbury University is speaking with his philosopher's hat on, not as New Zealand Skeptics Association spokesman, when he says there is certainly a place for genuine personal apology - but he doesn't include the likes of Blair apologising for the potato famine, or Rudd to the Aborigines.

"I think it is incoherent to imagine that people can apologise for the crimes of their ancestors," says Dutton.

"In our culture, open and frank apology is a mark of virtue and we live in an age where too many politicians in particular are trying to appear virtuous by apologising for acts they had no hand in and have no right to apologise for."

Why should he apologise, he asks, if his ancestors invaded ancient Rome or held indentured servants in 15th century Britain, or beat their children?

"I mean, I can apologise to you for having spilled my drink on your new dress and I can mean it, but I can't apologise on behalf of my great-great grandparents, of whom there are, by the way , 16 - am I responsible for all acts of all 16 over their lives?

"What am I supposed to apologise for here?"

There is no way to undo history, he says.

"To imagine that somehow some Maori people should apologise to other Maori people because some of their ancestors kept others in slavery or practised homicide against each other is really absurd."

The same applies to Pakeha apologising to Maori, he says.

"I mean, do we do a moral calculus of all of the harm done to Maori by Pakeha, but then what was the average life expectancy before the European invasion of the land? Is that redress in part remedied by the existence, for example, of modern medicine?"

Former Housing Minister Phil Heatley's teary-eyed apology for misuse of his ministerial credit card was at least honourable, says Dutton, in that he went on to resign, and he thinks Reynolds' apology held water because he at least was in a position to apologise because he is head of the company.

"I think the only moral credit that accrues for apology is to apologise for something for which you were directly responsible."

There is, however, a pretentiousness and falsity in the current fashion for apologising, he says.

Hone Harawira's apology for using the mofo word, for example, was not an apology.

"It was 'if you're bent out of shape I'm sorry about that' - but am I sorry you're bent out of shape or am I sorry for what I did?

"A grudging apology is not an apology. A grudging apology is trying to have it both ways."

The communications lecturer

Dr Kane Hopkins of Massey University was about to discuss the Tiger Woods apology with his class when we rang.

Woods' was a very strategic apology directed at his wife, he says.

Hopkins thinks there is a formula to the public apology these days - "I think people apologise because it's expected of them. The media chases them for the apology and they give it."

The public apology is not so much new as more obvious, he thinks.

"The expectation is there is going to be an apology, and it's the same with the Toyota CEO, that's almost historic that he's come out to apologise for what's happened, but I guess it's that people are also more aware, particularly with the politicians in New Zealand now. There is so much more transparency so they've probably got more to apologise for.

"In the old days we would never have known half of what they get up to, and what they spend..."

Whether they are genuinely sorry or just sorry they got caught is often unclear.

"They are following what I think is the formula, because apologising shuts a story down as well. That is a classic PR technique. You come out, you apologise, you front up and the story then tends to go away."

Tiger Woods didn't care what the rest of the world thought, Hopkins says.

"This is a guy who earns a billion dollars a year. He's only really interested in his family and his business connections. I mean, this was somebody who was incredibly private, he was really forced into his apology and if he didn't look sincere, I'm not surprised."

The psychotherapist

Alan Froggatt thinks there have been many John Cleese-style forced apologies of late and he, too, says spotting whether an apology is genuine is tricky.

"There's lots of tricks that NLP (Neuro-Linguistics Programming) practitioners will tell you about - people look up to the right if they're lying and things like that."

Complete rubbish, says Froggatt.

"What it requires is a practitioner to know the person they're talking to, and this is why you might get somebody do a lie detector test and you need somebody who is very apt at delivering the polygraph to be able to make sense of the result.

"Consistency over time is the best layman's measure. You know, if you were to talk to 10 people these people work with every day you'd probably have a sense whether the person felt remorse or not."

Sometimes people don't even know themselves what is true, and he points out the public wants people to show remorse.

"It's a classic courtroom ploy, if you don't show remorse you must be a bad person."

He thinks the social pressure to apologise masks real reparation, such as in a court case when we are willing to trade off for a monetary fine.

It's too easy to bring out the cheque book, but this is the fault of the culture we live in.

"We trade in money and money is what people go to court seeking to make things better, and it just doesn't. It doesn't bring family members back, it doesn't undo whatever's being created. I think that's one of the things we need to grow up a little bit around."

Froggatt sees CEO-type apologies in a cultural context, a bit like the need for a scapegoat.

"Originally the idea of a scapegoat was that it was an old ritual where all the sins of the village were put on a goat and then the goat was beaten out of the village and that was to drive evil spirits out,. We've got a little bit of that mentality still left over - you know, if we get rid of this CEO who was in charge at the time then the problem will go away."

Partly, the rise of the public apology is rooted in the therapy society which has emerged out of programmes such as Alcoholics Anonymous' 12 steps, which include making amends.

We are in the middle of a developmental stage, Froggatt says.

Just as the 70s and 80s had their own flavour, in this period we are still dealing with being politically correct; not offending too many people and how to appease that.

This phase will pass, he says, but it could take a few more decades.

CONTRITE:

* Former Housing Minister Phil Heatley
* Telecom CEO Paul Reynolds
* Broadcasting personality Tony Veitch
* Maori Party MP Hone Harawira
* Golfer Tiger Woods
* Toyota president Akio Toyoda
* Former New Zealand PM Helen Clark
* Australian PM Kevin Rudd
* Former British PM Tony Blair
* British PM Gordon Brown

- NZ Herald

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