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Canadians aren’t the only ones sorry

Living in the 'age of apology'.
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I'm sorry if...

It was yet another apology carried out in the public sphere. An actor sorry for something he wrote in a memoir. A TV host apologizing for behavior in a restaurant. A singer regretting words directed toward some fans. On it goes. Is there a day that goes by that some public figure isn’t apologizing for something?

It is said we live in the age of apology. Athletes, entertainers, politicians, entrepreneurs, even entire governments are being asked to apologize for words and actions deemed harmful. Sounds good, right? People are taking responsibility for hurtful things they have done and seek to make amends for the pain that was caused. But is that what’s really going on?

 I was very young when my dad sat me down for a conversation about something I had done to my little sister. I honestly don’t remember what it was, but I do remember it required an apology. I listened to my dad and he helped me say ‘I’m sorry’. He taught me the importance of understanding mistakes and fixing things with those we hurt.

Of course that kind of apology happens person to person, face to face. But what is happening in this ‘age of apology’ is that the powerful, famous and influential amongst us are under scrutiny for every comment, post, and action—and then face demands of admission of guilt if anything doesn’t fall in line with the gatekeepers of popular opinion. It becomes imperative that a public apology be offered since backlash affects status, influence and earnings. Enter the experts.

An entire industry has developed to help celebrities, corporations and politicians craft the perfect apology. Specialists put their clients through the strategies necessary to ensure it is done well. Target audiences are determined, scripts are written, and the client is coached to deliver the message effectively through whatever venue is chosen: press conference, interview, or direct-to-fans through a social media channel.

While we hope those making the apology are doing so because they are contrite, it’s easy to wonder if this type of concession is a genuine admission of wrongdoing, or a carefully curated performance designed to get back into the good graces of those demanding it.

Then there are the apologies of those who say they simply want to speak from the heart. It’s interesting though, the number of times you hear a statement such as ‘I’m sorry if what I said offended anyone’ or ‘I’m sorry if it was received that way’. Why the need for ‘if’? Is that an apology? I apologize IF you were offended, or I apologize IF you took it that way. Wouldn’t it sound more authentic to say…‘I’m sorry. I was wrong.’

Many apologies are required to be in the public sphere because that’s where they started in the first place. As a result, they impact not just an individual, but a larger community. But while it is hoped there is genuine remorse, it seems the bigger goal is to rebuild their image to that community. In a culture that has become so condemning and offended by everything, it seems the apology is less about remorse and more about revision.

Do we wonder what it is that has led to this proliferation of apologies? It could be greater awareness and understanding. This would explain apologies that are absolutely necessary following comments that are intentionally vile, cruel or hateful. But it seems a lot of them are coming because of pressure to retract words that don’t fall in line with the opinion of someone else. One person reacts, and others pile on—warranted or not. Ideas or words not in step with our wildly fluctuating popular culture quickly become touchstones that lead to the rise…and fall…of reputations, character and careers.

As Canadians we are familiar with the stereotype that depicts us as ever apologetic. It makes for great comedy, I suppose, but let’s ensure that it is more than a punchline. An apology needs to be an expression of regret and remorse. It is about conveying sorrow for having wronged or failed another, and its meaningfulness comes in its sincerity. Flippancy over the words “I’m sorry” or, worse yet, insincere expressions to ingratiate oneself back into favor, cheapens its power. But honest contrition, when it is needed, is the path to reconciled relationships and freedom to move forward. The way we all protect the credibility of the apology is to ensure it is less about posturing and all about principle. That’s my outlook.