Can you say ‘I’m sorry’?

President Obama said, "there have been times where America's shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive" at a town hall-style meeting at Rhenus Sports Arena in Strasbourg, France.
(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)

Maybe love means never having to say you’re sorry, but what about when love isn’t involved? Say, when you’ve described the president using a derogatory slur for someone with a mental disability, as Ann Coulter did in October. Or when you’re the president and you use an expletive suggesting that your opponent is a liar, as Barack Obama did during the campaign. And, if one does decide to apologize for speech or behavior, what makes an apology genuine?

Last month, after Cleveland Browns linebacker Tank Carder called a Twitter user a “faggot,” he offered this: “I don’t agree with being gay or lesbian at all, but [that]doesn’t make me a homophobe. It’s just a word.” When the outcry persisted, Carder removed his original tweet and issued a non-apology apology: “I was not bashing the gay community in any way.… I’m sorry if you were offended.”

Those who enlist the non-apology apology usually regret the ways others have misunderstood them, rather than regretting what they’ve said. Take Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, who observed during the campaign that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, it is something that God intended to happen.” After an uproar, he clarified: “I spoke from my heart. For speaking from my heart, for speaking from the deepest level of my faith, I cannot apologize. If people came away with the wrong meaning … for that I apologize.”


One of the most powerful gestures an individual can make toward another, a sincere apology combines two of humanity’s most ennobling attributes: conscience and accountability. “A proper apology — one that is timely, that recognizes the harm one has done to another and that doesn’t attempt to excuse or explain it away — can repair a relationship that might otherwise be irreparably damaged or destroyed,” says Ari Kohen, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska, who maintains a blog chronicling the worst apologies (

So why, if apologies can do so much good, do we have such a hard time extending them?

One explanation is that in such a politicized time, blame — and therefore contrition — has become partisan. We demand apologies from those with whom we disagree as a way to score political points. Democrats were outraged by Ann Coulter’s comment, but they regarded President Obama as a truth-teller when he dismissed Mitt Romney as a slinger of lies. And vice-versa.

An admission of guilt may also be something to avoid in a world strident about self-esteem. Undertaking an apology, after all, requires first feeling bad about oneself.

One of the most contentious moments of the 2012 presidential campaign came when Romney accused Obama of having made an “apology tour” after he was elected in 2008. The charge stemmed from speeches the president made overseas in which he said: “There have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive,” and “the United States still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation, the past treatment of Native Americans.”

People can disagree about whether there is an apology in those statements, but they do raise a question: What would be wrong with a leader, any leader, apologizing for wrongdoing? Particularly one from a country with, as the politicians like to remind us, Judeo-Christian origins? After all, the Jewish faith devotes one of its high holy days to atonement (Yom Kippur), and for Christians, Jesus Christ is best emulated through the sacrament of reconciliation, which hinges on the act of confession and asking for forgiveness.

But in the modern world, as Kohen points out, “apologizing is a challenge because one has to consciously lower oneself in order to properly apologize. It’s especially difficult if one has been in a position of power with respect to the person now owed the apology.”


Julie Exline, a professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University, has uncovered a curious trend in her research on apology. “Because levels of narcissism are higher than they used to be in our culture,” she says, “there is evidence that apologizing might be harder than it used to be.”

And yet, it remains wise — in personal or business matters — to apologize, says Michael Shmarak, vice president at DKC Public Relations, Marketing & Government Affairs. Shmarak has advised clients on apology. “When shareholders file lawsuits or a whistle-blower exposes mass fraud, the companies who come out on top are those that acknowledge their mistakes so the victims don’t keep getting the attention.”

University of Exeter professor Andrew Schaap wrote that forgiveness is “a struggle to settle the meaning of a wrongful act in the past for the sake of our common life as individuals within a community. To forgive in this way is to resist the power of the past to determine the possibilities of the present.”

It’s an eloquent idea, but in today’s world is there ever a “past,” when misdeeds can be discovered instantly and recycled endlessly? In the glare of an insomniac media, the introspection needed to inspire emotions like guilt and mercy can’t begin, and once that introspection is stalled, so is the probability that we can ever give or receive true apology.

In spite — or perhaps because — of all the forces aligned against apology, there is in our society a yearning for someone, anyone, to take responsibility. To say, even privately: I am wrong; I’m to blame. Exline says her work on apology continues to reveal that “apologies, especially if prompt and perceived as sincere, are strong predictors of forgiveness and reconciliation,” and “people are more likely to regret not apologizing than to regret apologizing.”

In “The Iliad,” Homer wrote, “There is strength in the union of very sorry men.” If leadership and personal integrity are still defined by pursuing what’s right, wouldn’t it seem only logical that both are best proved when we know, and have made amends for, what we’ve done wrong? When sincerely given, an apology tour may just be the trip that steers us home.


Brendan Tapley’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Daily Beast and the Boston Globe Magazine, among others.