As I've mentioned here often, my friend Nell Minow and I are professional experts on the art of apologizing. (Indeed, we have been considering a consultancy service for celebrities. I think we could make a fortune.) As it happens, there are others in the profession, as well, and Nell sent me a wonderful article here, "How to Say I'm Sorry," by one of them, Marjorie Ingall."
I'm serious, this is a terrific, erudite article from someone who has truly studied the subject, having reads books on the topic, researched medical journals on the impact of apology, and even quotes the 12th century scholar Maimonides on the mechanics of a good apology, noting that he said "that true repentance requires humility, remorse, forbearance, and reparation." And she adds, "Not much has changed since then."
The article includes a discussion of classic failures of celebrity apologies, and even gives examples of who got it right and wrong, with links to long essays she and her apologist-partner Susan McCarthy have written on each one, breaking down the mechanics that made it a failure or success.
(My favorite is their study concerning Charles Dickens and Fagin. It's a little-known tale that I've been explaining to people for years, which I discovered by chance, reading the footnotes in his novel, Our Mutual Friend. It impressed me deeply that they were aware of it, too, but even better they go into more detail than I knew. I don't completely agree with all their conclusions, but we overlap close enough. The short version is that Eliza Davies was a Jewish woman who had rented Dickens' home, Tavistock, with her banker husband. She had met the author at a party, which began a series of letters with him, and eventually she took Dickens to task for Fagin. In return, he created a truly wonderful and noble Jewish character, Mr. Riah, for his next book, Our Mutual Friend, who helps protect and save the protagonists of of the story -- but more, Dickens actually went back to Oliver Twist and edited out many references to Fagin's religion for subsequent editions, calling him instead "the old man," at times, for example, and changing the last chapter from being called "The Jew's Last Night Alive" to "Fagin's Last Night Alive." His defense in writing the character that way initially was that so many criminals of that kind in London were Jewish -- and it's worth knowing that England historically at that time had a great deal of anti-Semitism in general in its culture. But whatever the reasons, Dickens felt strongly enough to go back and make changes and try to correct the situation. You can read their whole, long and interesting write-up -- including a copy of Dickens letter back to Mrs. Davies -- here.)
There's also a handy primer that breaks down dismal apologies into categories, such as "The Sorry if" (as in "I'm sorry if I offended anyone"), "The I was just being funny," "The you are so sensitive,'" "The let's move forward" and more. She even explains why any apology that uses the words "obviously" and "misconstrued" are automatically bad apologies. (The former word isn't humble, which an apology requires, and if it was so obvious why didn't you say it? And the later word puts the onus on the other person for being at fault, not seeing your good intentions.)
Though the article is very serious and heartfelt, it's written in a lighthearted way that makes it fun to read. But more than just an article, Ms. Ingall and Ms. McCarthy have an entire blog devoted to the Art of the Apology, called SorryWatch. As she explains, the site "applauds good apologies (and analyzes what makes them good) and flings metaphorical monkey poop at bad ones (and examines what makes them terrible). We examine apologies in politics, sports, pop culture, literature, and history, and we look at research on effective and ineffective apologies."
To give you a sense of the blog, one of the recent entries concerns divorce proceedings between a U.S. District Court judge and his wife. The article is titled, "She came at me with bourbon, I regret to say." Another piece on the blog is based on a real-life letter from someone on a jury of the Salem Witch Trials. The article is titled, "We are very very sorry for putting you to death for being a witch."
I might be a professional expert on apologies (in part from study, and in part from too much experience), as well as is Nell, but Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy are gurus.
Anyway, take a look. I know this has gone on for a while, and for that I'm sorry. Obviously, though, my intent has been misconstrued...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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