Last week, we witnessed another example of the vicious cycle of hurtful actions (or words) and insincere apologies driven by the wrong reasons. This time, it was the congressional hearing about antisemitism with the presidents of three Ivy League universities and the “clarifications” (apologies?) that followed. But this incident is not unique. You may remember when Kanye West “hijacked” the microphone from Taylor Swift during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Bill Clinton and his famous “I didn’t have a relationship with that woman,” Whoopi Goldberg and “The Holocaust wasn't originally about race” statement, Tiger Woods with his extra-marital affairs and, unfortunately, many, many more.
A sincere apology
There is nothing wrong with an apology as long as it is sincere. The cycle of a sincere apology is the following:
You don’t think enough about who might be hurt by your words or actions. You have no intention of hurting others.
You say or act in a way that unintentionally hurts someone.
You realize that you hurt them. Maybe because they say so. Maybe because you observe that they were hurt even if they don’t say anything, and perhaps because someone points it out to you.
You sincerely apologize. The motivation to apologize is intrinsic: because you feel bad that you unintentionally hurt another person’s feelings (or more). Your body language and apology words would be consistent because you are sincere, and because of that, the person you hurt trusts that you are sincere in your apology. Maybe they will not forgive immediately. Maybe they will never forgive you.
In the future, you will be more sensitive towards that person because you believe it’s the right thing to do.
The vicious cycle of the fake apology
Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, that’s not what happens more and more. Instead, we see more evidence of fake, insincere apologies.
Here is how the vicious cycle of fake apologies works:
Maybe I’m naïve, but I will assume no intention exists to hurt someone, even in the cycle of fake apologies.
At the same time, I believe that there could be an intentional ignorance of certain people, mainly due to catering to other people, typically due to political correctness, or to benefit from the support of particular groups of people. This would be the place to add that according to University World News, between 2014 and 2019, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates donated at least US$4.4 billion to numerous US colleges. Together with donations from other Middle Eastern nations, over the five years in question, more than US$5 billion was donated to American universities from authoritarian Middle Eastern countries (of which Harvard received $894m and MIT received $859m). Maybe there were strings attached to such donations that prevented the university presidents from saying what they did during the congressional hearing. Only they would know. However, it did seem that the answers from all three university presidents were highly coordinated. Maybe they are getting the same legal advice? Again, I still believe that they didn’t say what they did with the intention of hurting the Jewish population. There could be other reasons for making the hurtful statements. Bill Clinton wanted to avoid a significant hit to his political career, Kanye West was elated about Beyonce’s win, Tiger Woods, well, had his “needs,” and Whoopi Goldberg wanted to make a controversial point in her TV show because controversy gets more viewers.
Words and actions have consequences. Whether intentional or not, certain people were offended. In the case of the congressional hearing about antisemitism on university campuses, I would venture to say very offended. And the consequences didn’t take long to follow, in the form of calls for the resignation of the university presidents, major donors pulling their donations, and a social media outburst against the presidents and their universities.
And there is a significant difference between a sincere apology and a fake, insincere apology. The motivation for a sincere apology is intrinsic. You apologize because you feel bad about hurting another person. The driving component is empathy towards the other person. You didn’t realize that you were about to hurt them, and you considered hurting them unacceptable to you. But the motivation for a fake apology is extrinsic. You face a backlash and consequences. You are losing (or face losing) donations, votes, marriage, job, or money. You don’t want to lose them. If you already lost them, you want them back. And that’s the reason for the apology. The apology is not driven by empathy but by your self-centered interests. Often, it is not even an apology. For example, the university presidents issued clarifications rather than apologies after their testimonies. In president Magill’s clarification, there wasn’t a single use of the words “apology” or “sorry.” There was no recognition of hurting people. The apology is sometimes just a “you didn’t understand what I said,” blaming the victims for being unjustly hurt, or a lame excuse for hurting other people (“I wasn’t focused when I said that.”). Either one is a sincere apology driven by empathy and intrinsic motivation. You may not even intend to apologize and are doing so only because lawyers, or your boss, or someone else threatens you with consequences, such as lawsuits.
So, you apologize. But, because your motivation was not intrinsic (genuine empathy and feeling bad for hurting another person) but rather extrinsic (avoiding or reversing the consequences of your words or actions), instead of increasing your empath with the person you hurt, you feel resentment toward them for putting you in the situation in which you must apologize. This resentment makes this a cycle of events, because resentment would cause you to hurt the person you already hurt when you get a chance, when you feel you can hurt them without suffering negative consequences. And so the cycle begins again.
Why do we do it?
A 2017 study found that the level of individualism (in other words, the world revolves around me) has increased in 78 countries by 12% since 1960. You may consider that not a significant increase, but you might be interested to find out that it increased by up to 69% in English-speaking countries. The more we believe that the world revolves around us, the less empathetic and aware we are of the possibility of hurting others by our words or actions (hence the need for an apology later). But it also affects the motivation to apologize, which becomes less about the damage to the victim and more about the damage to me from the consequences.
A 2015 MIT study showed that political polarization has dramatically increased since the 1970s. In 1977, they counted 12,921 cross-party agreements in roll-call votes (12,672 in 1969). Given the Vietnam War, you would think these numbers would be lower. However, by the time we reached 2007, even though the number of roll-call votes had increased by some 75%, the number of cross-party agreements declined to 181. A 2016 article from USC provides evidence that the level of political polarization we have today is greater than that during the Civil War. This level of political polarization further emphasizes the “us vs. them” and the formation of stronger “ingroups” vs. “outgroups,” which reduces the level of empathy we have toward people who are not us, as well as apologizing for intrinsic reasons rather than because of empathy to the person we harmed.
We have an increase in the level of litigation in our country. That was the topic of my first TEDx talk and the book Cause of Death: Political Correctness. This increase in litigation has two impacts on the cycle of fake apologies. The first is that it drives the initial offending action because things are done to “cover our asses” rather than because they are the right thing to do. But litigation plays an even more significant role in providing a much stronger extrinsic motivation to apologize (fear of legal consequences) than the intrinsic motivation (because I harmed someone).
Social media is becoming more and more important. In our increasing need to be liked by more people, we are more afraid of losing followers (which often translates into money) than we are of doing the right thing. We hurt people because we think other people will like us more for doing it. Then, we apologize so that we don’t lose followers, an extrinsic motivation, rather than because we hurt someone.
The consequences of this vicious cycle of fake apologies are far-reaching and affect our entire society. We are good at deciphering body language, even if we do it subconsciously, and in the words of Albert Mehrabian in his 1971 book Silent Messages, “when our words contradict the silent messages contained within them, others mistrust what we say.” And thus, we lose trust in those who apologize, excuse themselves, or “provide clarifications.” And trust continues to decline in our society.
What should you do?
For crying out loud, think before you speak! Exercise empathy. Ask yourself, if I say this or do this, might I hurt someone? Do I want to hurt them? Can I say what I mean or do something in a way that will not hurt someone? Is there someone you didn’t even think about that might get unintentionally hurt? Remember that people are different, and the same behavior that would cause one person to trust you could cause another person to distract you (this is the foundation for my relative trust model and my second TEDx talk: The Relativity of Trust. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want you to have analysis paralysis. Just think a little more and exercise more empathy before you say or do something that might hurt another person.
If you said or did something that hurt someone unintentionally, apologize because it’s the right thing to do. Not because of some extrinsic motivation. Not because you are afraid of the consequences or try to reverse them. The other person will see through an insincere apology driven by extrinsic motivation.
The apology should be because you did something wrong. Don’t explain or clarify, don’t excuse your behavior, and never deflect the blame to the victim for not understanding or misinterpreting your intention. Their interpretation and understanding of your words or actions is their perception, and you can’t argue with them.
Ask for forgiveness. When you do that, you show the person you hurt that you really care. When you do it, do it privately. When you ask for forgiveness publicly, you may be doing it for the wrong reasons. Instead of showing the other person you care about their feelings, you are giving the impression that you are doing it so that others see. I touched on that point in a previous article, TRUST and Doing the Right Thing When Nobody Watches. Of course, the victim may have been hurt by you publicly and may demand that your apology be public. Do it privately, and ask them if they prefer you to do it publicly as well. It could help them feel better.
Promise not to do it again! There is no point in apologizing if there is a good likelihood that you would say or do the same thing again. The person you hurt must know not only that you regret saying or doing what you did but also that you will be more careful not to say or do it again! And, once again, do it privately. Not publicly. Although, again, give them the option to do it publicly.
Assuming they forgave you (or are willing to try), and you promised not to do it again, don’t do it again, for God's sake! You already indicated that you know that what you said or did was wrong. You already asked for forgiveness and promised not to do it again. Doing it again would be irreparable. You may be familiar with the phrase, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!” If you say or do it again, they will blame themselves for giving you a second chance and will likely never be willing to give you a third chance. You may also be competing with Maya Angelou’s quote, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” They may believe that you are incapable of change and that hurting them was intentional. You must prove to them that it wasn’t and that you sincerely intend never to do it again.
Don’t resent the victim. This was your fault. The consequences of your words or actions can only be blamed on you. Not the victim for not understanding or misinterpreting your words or actions. If you blame them, you remain in the vicious cycle of your fake apology. You will only break out of that cycle if you don’t blame them.
Want to hear more? Listen to the podcast episode at: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/s11e11-trust-and-authenticity-the-vicious-cycle/id1569249060?i=1000638304023
Dr. Yoram Solomon is an expert in trust, employee engagement, teamwork, organizational culture, and leadership. He is the author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a three-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop and masterclass that explains what trust is and how to build trust in organizations. He is a frequent speaker at SHRM events and a contributor to HR.com magazine.
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