How to say ‘I’m sorry,’ whether you’ve appeared in a racist photo, harassed women or just plain screwed up

“I’m sorry.”

These two words may seem simple, but the ability to express them when you’re in the wrong is anything but – particularly for those in the public eye.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, to name a recent example, was forced to apologize after his 1984 medical school yearbook page resurfaced showing two unnamed men, one with blackface and another wearing the Ku Klux Klan’s white hood and robe. That he seriously botched his effort to apologize is arguably one of the reasons many people are still calling on him to resign.

As a language scholar, I wanted to get to the bottom of just what makes an apology effective by analyzing dozens of mea culpas. While some offered authentic apologies, many more seemed defensive, insincere or forced.

With the help of insights from linguists, psychologists and business ethicists who study apologies, I found that there are three main elements each needs to have to be effective.

Demonstrators call for Northam’s resignation. AP Photo/Steve Helber

Not all apologies are equal

Much is at stake with a public apology.

When done right, it can rebuild trust and restore a damaged reputation. However, a poorly crafted apology can lead to widespread criticism and further damage credibility. Research shows that the way a company crafts an apology can even affect its future financial performance and that leaders who apologize tend to be viewed more favorably than those who don’t.

In “When Sorry Isn’t Enough: Making Things Right with Those You Love,” Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas cite a survey of what people preferred most in an apology. It found that almost four-fifths wanted their would-be penitent to either express regret or accept responsibility, as opposed to make restitution, repent or seek forgiveness.

In 2011, David Boyd, now dean emeritus at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business, identified seven strategies that make public apologies effective. I believe three of them – revelation, responsibility and recognition – are the most significant because they overlap with those identified by prominent scholars in other fields, including linguists Andrew Cohen and Elite Olshtain and psychologist Robert Gordon.

That is, an admission for the lapse using the words “I am sorry” or “I apologize,” ownership for the offense and empathy for those who have been hurt all contribute to an effective apology. But it’s not enough for an apology just to contain these three ingredients. It’s also about the exact wording used.

In my analysis of infamous public apologies that celebrities, CEOs and political figures have delivered over the past two years, I was looking for how they fared according to Boyd’s standards of revelation, responsibility and recognition. I also closely examined the language of each apology, applying many insights from linguist Edwin Battistella’s book “Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology.”

1. ‘I am sorry’

This may seem obvious but sadly isn’t: Any respectable apology must include an actual apology with a specific acknowledgment of what was done. Surprisingly, some people attempting to own up to something never get around to actually apologizing.

Comedian Louis C.K., for example, never actually used words like “apologize” or “sorry” after being accused of sexual misconduct by several women. He called the stories “true” and said he was “remorseful” but dodged the actual apology.

Others try to apologize in a general way to avoid being pinned down to a specific transgression, weakening the impact. Or they may admit to a lesser offense. A case in point is Apple’s non-apology apology in December 2017 over the performance of iPhone batteries.

“We’ve been hearing feedback from our customers about the way we handle performance for iPhones with older batteries and how we have communicated that process,” the company said. “We know that some of you feel Apple has let you down. We apologize.”

Was Apple apologizing for the poor-performing batteries, its communication process or the feelings of its customers? Distancing the actual apology from the transgressions is a common tactic in corporate apologies, used in recent years both by Airbnb and Uber as well.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Cambridge Analytica apology left much to be desired. Reuters/Kimberly White

2. ‘I did it’

Any well-crafted apology must claim responsibility for the transgression – not attribute one’s actions to happenstance or external factors.