Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Back-handed Apology

What is it, you ask?

It’s one of my personal favorites. It’s apologizing, but not really. In fact, it’s apologizing for someone else instead of for your own ridiculous behavior.

“I’m sorry you feel that way.” (About my inability to hold a passing interest in our discussion)

“I’m sorry that things just didn’t work out.” (…with our relationship, because I cheated on you)

“It stinks that I didn’t make it.” (…and instead was late, missing the movie)

None of these are apologies. So why do we go about pretending that they are? Is it a lack of responsibility? Plain old procrastination? A recent article on CNN.com approached the Back-handed Apology, and spoke with our own Nick Smith.

Michelle Goodman

Don’t play the blame game and offer a back-handed apology, says one expert.

David Bohl is no stranger to apologies — the good, the bad and the insincere.

A former Chicago securities trader and a recovering alcoholic, the 47-year-old Hartland, Wisconsin, resident spent two decades of his marriage stringing together empty promises and hollow apologies. First, because he was a workaholic, and later, because of his drinking.

“I wasn’t always there for my family,” Bohl says of Vicki, his wife of 24 years, and his two children. “I’d say, ‘Hey, I’m going to go do something with the guys,’ or, ‘I’m going to do something at work. I’ll be home at six for dinner.'”

Then he’d waltz in drunk or exhausted from working at 8 or 9 p.m., apologetic but ultimately unrepentant.

“When I was drinking, I was always sorry,” he says. But, “it didn’t mean anything. Because although I felt it and expressed it, I never took responsibility. My priorities were screwed up.”

When it comes to politicians, athletes and other celebrities, apologizing has become a highly public and somewhat predictable event. Tears are shed, repentance is promised and the news cycle spins onward.

But what happens when it’s a loved one or colleague who has transgressed and is apologizing? How do we judge their sincerity — and how can the person who is apologizing win back the trust of those they’ve wronged?

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