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Season 2

Ep 9: How to Ditch Bad Apologies and Say Sorry like You Mean It

With Marjorie Ingall, Susan McCarthy & Dr. Karina Schumann

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Messing up is often all too easy. But then what? How do you make it right? You apologize and you make it good.

But the days of switching blame with, ‘sorry if’ or explaining away your responsibility with, ‘actually,’ are long gone. We expect better from our apologies. So, how do we do that—how do we apologize like we mean it? That’s where Marjorie Ingall & Susan McCarthy, co-authors of Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies and co-creators of the super fun site, come in. With Karina Schumann, Associate Professor of Social Psychology and Director of the Conflict Resolution Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, you’ll hear what a good apology can do for the giver and the receiver.

Join host Lottie Bazley as we break down the anatomy of a good apology and bask in the glory of some of the worst apologies out there.


Lottie Bazley: Today we have a special treat, a new game show.

Game Show Host: Welcome to Bad Apology Bingo. The show where you'll be, sorry you ever said sorry. Today our contestants are Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy. Welcome to the show. All right, I'm going to read out a celebrity apology and you buzz in to tell us where they went wrong. First up, we have disgraced cyclist, Lance Armstrong, and I quote, “The truth isn't what was out there. The truth isn't what I said. And now it's gone.” This story is so perfect for so long. You win the Tour de France seven times. It's just this mythic perfect story.

Majorie Ingall: First, I'm just trying to control my blood pressure. There's this word salad where he just is trying to figure out what the hell he's going to say to the question, which was why did you lie for so long? There is no thinking about the careers that he destroyed by accusing other people of cheating.

Susan McCarthy: He's excusing himself. It worked really well.

Majorie Ingall: As a proud American, don't you want those seven Tour de France victories? One testicle. Come on.

Game Show Host: One testicle. That is correct. Up next, this drunken disorderly apology comes from Reese do you know who I am Witherspoon. “I clearly had one drink, too many and I am deeply embarrassed about the things I said.”

Susan McCarthy: One drink too many. She is totally minimizing.

Game Show Host: Reese was minimizing. That's correct. Lastly, infamous Hollywood's gap, Drew Barrymore gave us this cringe-worthy apology. “My intentions have never been in a place to upset or hurt anyone. It's not who I am.”

Majorie Ingall: This is not who I am is a way of distancing yourself from your own behavior and your own behavior is what we're talking about here.

Game Show Host: Yes, the answer is distancing yourself. That is correct.

Lottie Bazley: You're listening to Infernal Communication brought to you by Staffbase and I'm your host, Lottie Bazley. Bad apologies, we've seen them, we've lived them and we've certainly cringed through them. I don't think any of us need to be taught how to mess up, but after the fact making it right, that's the tricky part and doesn't seem to come too naturally. So in this episode, let's get into the apology, how to do it, when to do it, and most importantly, how to do it well. Keep in mind there are mistakes.

Brian Tomlinson: Whoopsie.

Lottie Bazley: And then there are mistakes.

Brian Tomlinson: Uh-oh.

Lottie Bazley: I told Brian not to use the stove. So if you have done something truly awful,

Brian Tomlinson: Uh.

Lottie Bazley: Take a good hard look in the mirror and figure out how to make it right. But if you've messed up, we'll get into what sorry really means. What you just heard off the top of the show was Bad Apology Bingo. There were some very fine examples of how to apologize without actually apologizing. The game is the creation of two of today's guests who also happen to be our contestants. Winners obviously. They are the co-authors of the book, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies.

Susan McCarthy: I'm Susan McCarthy. I'm a writer and author. I mostly write about wildlife and animal behavior, but lately I have gotten really deep into apology.

Majorie Ingall: And I'm Marjorie Ingall. And when I'm not writing about apologies, I write about health and psychology and Jewish stuff and children's books.

Lottie Bazley: These two are really into apologies so much so that they started sorrywatch. com, a website dedicated to analyzing public apologies. Let's say a company leaks its customer's private information or a celebrity is caught doing something stupid. Susan and Marjorie would give their thoughts on the inevitable, often awful apology.

Susan McCarthy: We just break it down, what's good, what's bad. And oftentimes a public apology, there'll be a bad apology and people will jump on that person and say, “Oh, what do you mean, sorry if,” and then they'll make a better apology. And so we just break down the parts.

Lottie Bazley: In their study of apologies, they noticed certain phrases kept popping up again and again, ripped straight from a Bad Apology Bingo card.

Game Show Host: All right ladies, time for our bonus round. Category is 10 Ways to Ruin an Apology. Can we get 30 seconds on the clock, please?

Majorie Ingall: Regrettable, dialogue, alleged, positivity, Jesus, journey, self-discovery.

Susan McCarthy: Taking out of context.

Majorie Ingall: Sorry if, sorry but, sorry you, it's not who I am.

Game Show Host: Absolutely amazing. Chip, tell them what they've won.

Lottie Bazley: Bad apologies are the worst. And Susan and Marjorie had no problem finding loads of material, so much material.

Majorie Ingall: We were mostly having a good time analyzing terrible politician and celebrity apologies. And the more we did it, the more we started thinking about wanting to treat apologies seriously, because we started thinking of them as an act of vulnerability and an act of bravery. And then in 2016 something happened and someone was elected and not apologizing became a point of pride. And that made us want to do a book that was about the incredible potency of good apologies.

Susan McCarthy: And it was a chance for us to do even more research.

Majorie Ingall: That's how writers procrastinate, more research.

Lottie Bazley: So all that research turned into their book, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies. We're all too familiar with the makings of a bad apology. So what goes into a good one? Here is a list that Susan and Marjorie have compiled.

Majorie Ingall: So the number one step, the essential step is say you're sorry, not I'm regretful, not I would like to apologize, say I'm sorry or I apologize.

Susan McCarthy: Number two is say what you're apologizing for. Just say, “I am sorry for hitting you. I am sorry for ignoring the Covid rules that everyone else had to obey.” This gets skipped so many times. It's amazing. People will say, “I'm sorry for what happened. I feel bad about Wednesday night. I'm sorry for how the way that turned out. I feel bad.”

Majorie Ingall: Number three is show that you understand why what you did was hurtful. Don't make this about you. Make this about the other person.

Susan McCarthy: Number four is don't make excuses. If you need to explain just to clear up a mystery, you may explain, but don't make excuses. We don't want to hear about your bad day.

Majorie Ingall: Number five is make sure that you convey the steps that you are taking to ensure that the thing that you did will not happen again.

Susan McCarthy: And number six, in many cases, reparation, pay for the dry cleaning, whatever it takes.

Majorie Ingall: And then we have a bonus half step, which is listen, let the other person have their say. Don't respond, but you just let them talk. And the nice thing about this is they work whether you are a world leader who has been partying in your yard during Covid, or whether you're a 7-year-old who has chased a friend with a booger, or whether you are fighting with a partner for not unloading the dishwasher, whatever, all these things.

Lottie Bazley: I mean that sounds pretty simple. Six and a half easy steps and the benefits are huge.

Majorie Ingall: A good apology brings people together. It heals fractures. Sometimes on the site, we do things that are sort of apology adjacent. And one of them was an interview with an artist who does kintsugi, the art of fixing broken pottery with visible lines of gold. And it's a really good metaphor for apology because the fractures are still there. We're not doing a, let's move on or let's look ahead and pretend that this never happened. But the thing that has been repaired by a good apology is stronger than it was before and beautiful in a different way.

A bad apology we would argue is worse than no apology. We are not crisis communications people who say, “rush right in there and fix it and say a thing and attack in the golden hour”. We would much rather have human beings sit with what they've done for a while. And indeed there's research on this that when you actually allow the other person to process and when you think hard before you apologize, you're more likely to apologize well.

Susan McCarthy: One of the things that an apology does is it shows respect. And if people are injured, that goes a long way towards helping them feel better. You'll often hear the complaint in the most amazing circumstances people will say “They didn't even apologize.” And if it's a really grave thing, they cut off the wrong finger in the operating room. What good does an apology do? It shows respect, it shows concern, it shows that the person being apologized to matters.

Lottie Bazley: An apology can't undo the past, but it can make the future look better and relationships can be made stronger. But that's between people. What happens when you throw a major institution into the mix? They often seem to loathe to admit to any kind of fault. When you think about issues around liability, it makes sense, but Marjorie says there is another way to look at it.

Majorie Ingall: So in 2006, the Harvard hospital system, we think of doctors and hospitals as the masters of, we regret apologies, but this beautifully written hospital system report really compiled evidence for hospitals within the system showing that there really isn't a lot of evidence that good apologies increase the risk of malpractice suits. There was lots of evidence that bad apologies and no apologies cause malpractice suits. And there are malpractice lawyers who say that two thirds of the suits that they deal with are because of the failure of taking responsibility, which you will note from our list of apology essentials is absolutely vital to an apology.

You have to take responsibility, apologize, and communicate openly. And those are historically not things that hospitals and doctors have been great at. When people feel that their pain means something, when they get an apology and an explanation, here's how this isn't going to happen to somebody else. This is what we learned from the horrible thing that happened to you. And just knowing that their pain has meaning makes people a whole lot less vindictive.

Susan McCarthy: One way to think of it is the common phrase, “Adding insult to injury.” If you don't get an apology or you get a really bad, oh, too bad that happened to you, apology, that adds insult to injury.

Lottie Bazley: So a failure to take responsibility can actually do more harm than good for both the apology receiver and giver. It's safe to assume we all like to get a good apology, but when is it time to give one? Personally, I like to think that I say sorry when I don't feel great about my own behavior, but do we really have a sense of when we've upset the people around us? Dr. Karina Schumann looked at this question in a study involving married couples. Dr. Schumann is the professor of social psychology at the University of Pittsburgh where she's also the director of the Conflict Resolution Laboratory. According to her, we can be off the mark a surprising amount of time.

Dr. Karina Schumann: So if I were a participant in this study, I would have reported on anything I did to my partner during that day that would have potentially offended him as well as anything he did to me that offended me. And what I ended up doing was I ended up matching all of these reports and what I found was that both members of the couple reported the same offense only a third of the time, which means that two-thirds of the time in these, these were married and cohabitating long-term romantic relationships.

So these are really established couples. Only two-thirds of the time where one person felt that they had offended the other person or were offended by the other person, the other person did not see it the same way.

And I think that was just so eye-opening to think about how difficult conflict can be and how much of the time we're not even on the same wavelength in terms of whether an offense has happened. That just goes back to communication and how important it is to communicate through these situations so that we can really see each other's perspectives and come to a resolution when we've been hurt. Or when we've hurt someone else.

Lottie Bazley: I mean, if long-married couples can't understand when they've offended each other, what hope do the rest of us have? It just seems like we're often pretty clueless. We can't even read a room when the people we're closest to are in it. That's one strike against us. Another is that apologizing can be so fucking hard to do.

Dr. Karina Schumann: Because it feels threatening. It's an admission of wrongdoing. Apologizing calls attention to that. And if you say nothing, you're sort of like maybe hoping it goes away, slide under the rug. Or even people choose to deny and say, “There's nothing that I did that was actually wrong,” and that can be so much easier to do. It can make us feel better about ourselves, to protect our self-image, to say what we did was fine, what we did was justifiable.

And in so many situations there's also a lot of gray area. We don't feel like we're the only person responsible in this conflict situation. “You said this to me before and that provoked me, or I may be snappy, but you've been distant.” And these are the kinds of things that we are working with in real life. And so in those types of situations where we feel like there's dual responsibility, it can feel frustrating or uncomfortable to be the first one to say, “Let me take accountability for what I've done in this situation,” as opposed to waiting for that other person to go first.

And sometimes we feel that if we take accountability for our part, it lets them off the hook for taking accountability for their part. And there's actually research that actually shows the opposite, that when we take accountability for our part, they're more likely to take accountability for their part. When we actually are going through the apology itself and then right after we're like, “Hey, that was actually really not so bad and I feel better now. And look, our relationship is mended,” and all these great things happen, but we don't anticipate that when thinking about all those uncomfortable feelings that come with saying, I'm sorry.

Lottie Bazley: And according to Marjorie, there's also a little old-fashioned narcissism at play.

Majorie Ingall: We are all programmed. Our brains are designed to help us see ourselves as the hero of our own story.

Lottie Bazley: Where have I heard that before?

Hero: Did somebody call for a hero?

Lottie Bazley: Go back to episode two, you twit.

Hero: I am reborn.

Majorie Ingall: We have to basically see ourselves as we're screwed up like everybody, but basically we're good people. And when we are faced with a situation that requires an apology, there is a cognitive dissonance there. I'm a good person. How could I have done this terrible thing? Eh, must not have been so terrible. There are extenuating circumstances. The other person did a bad thing too. So to overcome our brain's functioning, to be able to say, “Nope, I owe someone an apology and I'm going to deliver it,” is incredibly cool and impressive.

Lottie Bazley: And let's add privilege to the list of things that keep us from offering a good apology. There are people who go through life thinking that they're doing well because they're doing good. Susan says a good example of that line of thinking was her great-grandparents.

Susan McCarthy: Who were quite prosperous and quite devout and they believed that they were prosperous because they had been rewarded for their virtue. And then the great depression came along and they had a really hard time understanding why they were no longer being rewarded.

Lottie Bazley: People are complicated and so are our brains. According to Susan, there is an additional benefit to apologizing that involves less how the apology makes us feel and more about how the mind works.

Susan McCarthy: The Zeigarnik Effect is the rule that uncompleted actions are better remembered than completed actions. So if I do something dumb and I apologize for it, that's a completed action and it's not as important for me to remember as if I say something dumb and I never apologize. It's kind of pending, always pending, and it's very memorable. There have been a few times when I apologized for something and then later, much later I thought, “Oh, that would be great for, Sorry Watch. What was the stupid thing I said? What was it? Huh. Huh. I can't even remember.” And that was because it was a completed action. I said the stupid thing. I apologized. All done.

Lottie Bazley: One more reason to apologize even if you didn't do anything wrong is to show remorse for something that's happened on your watch, even if you may not be entirely responsible.

Susan McCarthy: Say in a business setting, you have a team that works for you. Some decision has come down from above.

Boss: Hey, if you could just tell your team it's now mandatory tuxedos at work.

Susan McCarthy: It's not something you did, it's not something you can change. And you may want to apologize to the people you're supervising because they didn't deserve it. And you may want to say to them, “I am sorry. You didn't deserve that. You did great work. It's not fair.”

Lottie Bazley: Remember that kid you were mean to in third grade or that time you lied about who broke grandma's favorite vase? The good news is you can still right that wrong. It's not too late.

Majorie Ingall: I recently got a Facebook message from a friend from college who I hadn't talked to in years, and he just said this thing had been weighing on him. And when he told me the story, I remembered it, but I had not remembered it until he told me the story. He wanted to borrow my notes and I said, no, because it was right before the exam. And he got really mad at me and I'm like, “Fine, take the notes.” And then he threw my notebook at me. This was something that he'd been thinking about for years and I was like, “Thank you for the apology. I forgive you. That was really awesome that you approach me after all this time.” And it's reassuring to go like, oh, I took the risk of saying something and it went over fine and now I feel better.

Lottie Bazley: Susan just brought up an issue, an important issue when we're talking about apologies and that's forgiveness.

Majorie Ingall: Forgiveness can be good for your immune system, can be good for your blood pressure, heart rate, sleep, but we would say it's only good if it's a choice that you make and it works for you. A lot of times we say apologies are mandatory, forgiveness is not.

Lottie Bazley: That's a great reminder. Sincerity has to be at the heart of apologies and forgiveness. Here's Dr. Schumann with her final thoughts.

Dr. Karina Schumann: I was always really fascinated by the concept of how we can repair our wrongs. And I had seen the power of reconciliation in my own life and from a social psychological perspective coming from my undergraduate training in social psychology, the single most important message I received from that training was that our relationships are so important to us. And when our relationships are in trouble, we're in trouble in terms of our health, in terms of our emotional well-being, and so many ways. We really need to have healthy, thriving, happy relationships to be healthy ourselves in this life.

Lottie Bazley: Whether at home or at work, our relationships with each other dictate what kind of lives we live. When people don't feel heard and respected, they get upset and mad. Apologizing is a necessary part of life. It can be uncomfortable and requires you to put your ego aside. Knowing how to apologize sincerely is crucial to maintaining open and clear communications. And a bad apology can be worse than no apology at all.

So the next time something goes wrong, either at work or within your social circle, try putting yourself in the other person's shoes. What would you want to hear? What would you want done? But more importantly, how can you make it right?

Today our guests were co-authors of, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies, Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy, as well as Karina Schumann, associate professor of social psychology. Join us next time where we figure out how to come back from embarrassment.

Will Beckett: An hour and a half later, we had had a few hundred retweets. From there, it just blew up to the point where without any fear of exaggeration, it was a global news story for about 24 hours. It was incredible.

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