Illustrations by Tom Ford
Illustrations by Tom Ford

Are we ever truly sorry?

You can't ask me that! Continuing her series tackling socially unacceptable questions, Christine Manby asks if apologising comes naturally to Brits, or if we actually mean something else?

When it comes to three little words that are difficult to say, “I love you” really doesn’t come close to being the most difficult phrase in the English language. One of the things we actually find hardest to say is “I’m sorry”.

Surprising, isn’t it, given that one of the cliches about the English in particular is that we just can’t stop saying it. We say it when we didn’t hear what someone said to us.

We say it when we want to get by on a busy pavement. We say it when someone particularly heavy-footed steps backwards onto our toes on the Tube, breaking three metatarsals and putting us out of next week’s ballroom dancing competition. We say it all the time.

A recent YouGov poll revealed that Brits apologise 50 per cent more frequently than Americans. Only the Japanese come close to being as sorry as the British. Some of us are blurting out the S-word more than 20 times a day.

So are we sorry? Obviously, in the way we English use “sorry”, we don’t really mean “sorry” at all. When we can’t hear someone we mean “say that again”. (We don’t mean “pardon”. Nancy Mitford taught us that no one who’s anyone ever says “pardon”.)

When we can’t get past someone on the street we mean “excuse me”. And when someone steps on our feet with enough weight to break a bone we mean, “Mind where you’re going, you clumsy git”.

But when “sorry” means so many things, how do you make it mean “sorry” in the traditional sense when it needs to? How do you make a proper apology?

History is full of apologies gone awry. The word apology derives from the Greek apologia, which translates as “defence”. In his essay, Apologia, written circa 360BC, Plato describes how the philosopher Socrates responded to charges of blasphemy and corrupting young Athenians.

Socrates’ apology did not go well. He was subsequently sentenced to death by drinking hemlock.

More recently, Bill Clinton apologised to the United States for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. In an apologetic address from the White House on 17 August 1998, Clinton said: “Indeed I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong … I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.”

The words seemed right but the tone in which Clinton delivered them led many Americans to believe he wasn’t sorry at all. He had to reiterate the message several times that summer, commenting on the whole ‘sorry’ process, “I’m having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness.”

Sorry doesn’t take things back, but it pushes things forward. It bridges the gap. Sorry is a sacrament. It’s an offering. A gift

When it comes to bad apologies, however, Clinton has nothing on oil giant Chevron. In 2014, when one of Chevron’s Pennsylvanian fracking wells exploded, leaving one dead, another injured and countless numbers having to deal with the environmental fallout of a fire that burned for four days, the company apologised by sending those affected gift certificates for pizza. And a soft drink. A couple of beers might have been a start.

So what makes a good apology? According to a study by Roy Lewicki, a professor at the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, the perfect apology has six components.

The first is the all important expression of regret, followed by an explanation, an acknowledgement of responsibility, a “declaration of repentance”, an offer to repair damage done and, finally, a direct request for forgiveness.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg seemed to take on board Lewicki’s research with his apology in respect of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In March, Zuckerberg took out full page ads in a number of British newspapers, to make his apology public.

“You may have heard about a quiz app built by a university researcher that leaked Facebook data of millions of people in 2014,” read the ads. “This was a breach of trust, and I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time. We’re now taking steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Zuckerberg also delivered an apology in person to Congress in April, using many of Zewicki’s components again. There was an expression of regret: “It was my mistake, and I’m sorry.”

An acknowledgement of responsibility: “Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.” An explanation for what went wrong: “It’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy.”

But was Zuckerberg’s apology all that it seemed? Commentators on social media called it “hollow”. Annabelle Lukin, Associate professor of linguistics at Sydney’s Macquarie University, went further, and parsed those apologetic statements.

When Zuckerberg said, “I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here,” Lukin didn’t hear contrition.

Writing for The Conversation, Lukin said: “In fact, Zuckerberg is using a lovely linguistic trick, a grammatical option called ‘middle voice’ which you shouldn’t fall for. In the grammar of middle voice, an event is construed as if it happens under its own steam.

“No one has responsibility for it taking place… Zuckerberg says he’s responsible for ‘what happens’. But ‘what happens’, like the expression ‘shit happens’, makes it seem like things happened without anyone, like Zuckerberg, actually doing anything.”

Corporate apologies often leave us feeling cold but KFC may have nailed it. Earlier this year, the fast food company found itself in the extremely embarrassing position of having no chicken to Kentucky fry. Supply chain issues, during a clumsy handover of a logistics contract, led to KFC having to temporarily close hundreds of stores.

Like Zuckerberg, KFC opted for a print ad to apologise to disappointed chicken lovers up and down the nation. They commissioned ad agency Mother London, who designed an ad showing an empty chicken bucket with that famous KFC logo rearranged to spell “FCK”. Social media users loved it.

An apology delivered with humility and humour often works, as proved by Hugh Grant. Bill Clinton should have taken a leaf out of the actor’s book. After Grant was arrested on Sunset Boulevard in 1995, in the company of prostitute Divine Brown, it seemed his career as Britain’s favourite bumbling romantic hero was all but over.

His relationship with fellow actor Liz Hurley certainly had to be. However, Grant clawed it all back with a textbook perfect sorry, delivered on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.

When ‘sorry’ means so many things, how do you make it mean ‘sorry’ in the traditional sense when it needs to? How do you make a proper apology?

When Leno asked Grant about why he’d risked throwing it all away, Grant responded: “Well, it’s not easy. People keep giving me tons of ideas on this one… You know, I was under pressure, or I was overtired, stuff like that… I was lonely, I fell down the stairs as a child, or whatever.

“But I think that would be bollocks, really, to hide behind something like that. I think you know in life, pretty much, what’s a good thing to do and what’s a bad thing. I did a bad thing, and there you have it.”

It worked. Hurley stuck by Grant for another five years. They’re still friends and he’s godfather to her son. Meanwhile, Grant went on to make more enormous hits such as Love Actually.

Still, saying sorry is a risk. Australian writer Craig Silvey puts it beautifully in his novel Jasper Jones.

“Sorry means you leave yourself open, to embrace or to ridicule or to revenge. Sorry is a question that begs forgiveness, because the metronome of a good heart won’t settle until things are set right and true.

“Sorry doesn’t take things back, but it pushes things forward. It bridges the gap. Sorry is a sacrament. It’s an offering. A gift.”

It’s a gift that costs nothing yet means everything. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing that we offer it so often.

Christine Manby has written numerous novels including ‘The Worst Case Scenario Cookery Club’

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