Alan Kirker


January 31st, 2023 by

“An apology is an expression of regret or remorse for actions, while apologizing is the act of expressing regret or remorse” (Wikipedia, retrieved January 2023).

In the book “On Apology” (2004), psychiatrist and author Aaron Lazare states that a successful apology is a profound interaction whose enactment is comprised of four distinct parts; 1) acknowledgement, 2) explanation, 3) behaviour such as remorse, shame, humility, and 4) reparation; which together enable the restoration and reconciliation of relationships: “Apologies have the power to heal humiliations and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties” (p. 1).

What are the implications of the various contexts in which apologies are expected, or given?

In a paper titled “The Power of Apology” (2009), Abeler, Andree, Basek, and Calaki observe through controlled field tests in an online mercantile setting that a written apology, without admission of guilt, can surprisingly yield a more favourable outcome for a firm than offering a small monetary compensation. The reasons underlying why such an apology works remain unclear; perhaps recipients are not aware they are interacting with an employee paid to send apology emails, or the apology “triggers a heuristic to forgive that is hard to overcome rationally” (p. 5). What impact do corporate responses from an artificial intelligence have in this context?

Does timing play a role in the effectiveness of an apology? Cynthia McPherson Frantz and Courtney Bennigson, in reviewing experimental data in their paper titled “Better Late Than Early: The Influences of Timing on Apology Effectiveness” (2005), suggest that an apology delivered late may be optimal and that a victim’s “readiness to receive an apology, might be a key determinant of its effectiveness”, whereas an “abbreviated” apology given immediately following a transgression “may be perceived as superficial and insincere” (p. 202). Humiliations and their residual anger can grow into grudges and assaults on honour which may extend from interpersonal interactions all the way to the international sphere of foreign affairs. Journalist Thomas L. Friedman, quoted in Lazare’s “On Apology” (2004), states “If I’ve learned one thing covering world affairs… the single most underappreciated force in international relations is humiliation” (p. 47). Lazare adds that reasons for such humiliation can encompass being subject to; unprovoked attacks, border violations, occupation, espionage, and unfair trade restrictions, where effective apologies may necessitate a significant passage of time :

“During wars or warlike conditions, ceasefires and some kind of truce may be necessary to give combatants an opportunity to arrive at rational decisions regarding settlements, blame, and (sometimes) apologies. The apology may even require waiting for the arrival of the next generation of leaders when those immediately responsible for the offense are no longer on the scene and cooler heads, or at least fresh faces untainted by offenses of the past, can prevail” (p. 177).

Lee Taft, in an essay titled “Apology Subverted: The Commodification of Apology” (2000), states that in the civil law setting, where the stakes are often high, the apology process is at risk from commodification, of becoming “potentially marketable, an item to offer in a bargained-for exchange”, which makes it “ripe for subversion”. He explores this quandary insofar as some apologies may be crafted to avoid the admission of wrongdoing, and thus dismiss the value of any underlying moral ritual in favour of becoming an “object of exchange” (p. 1145). To help mitigate this, Massachusetts offers a “safe harbor” statute wherein “statements, writings or benevolent gestures expressing sympathy or a general sense of benevolence relating to the pain, suffering, or death of a person involved… shall be inadmissable as evidence of an admission of liability in a civil action” (p. 1151).

Beside various mercantile, political, and personal contexts, have our modern mediated electronic environments further corrupted the notion of apology, and do they instead foster an unapologetic nature? What of the related notion of forgiveness?

Lazare proposes that successful apologies heal because they can satisfy several psychological needs of the offended, including; a restoration of self-respect, assurances of safety and shared values, a reparation of harm, and “seeing the offender suffer” (2004, p. 44). Taft (2000) describes the apology process using the term “sacred” as it invites consideration of both religious and secular connotations that turn internal experiences of sorrow or regret into “public communion” (p. 1139). He suggests further that a “quest for healing must often extend beyond the law into disciplines more practiced in healing hearts and souls” (p. 1160).

Abeler, J., Andree, K., Basek, C., & Calaki, J. (June 2009), The Power of Apology, in Centre for Decision Research & Experimental Economics, Discussion Paper Series ISSN 1749 – 3293 (pp. 1 – 8). Nottingham, United Kingdom: University of Nottingham.

Bennigson, C., & Frantz, C. M. (March 2005), Better Late than Early: The Influence of Timing on Apology Effectiveness, in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Issue 41 (2), (pp. 201 – 207).

Lazare, A. (2004) On Apology. New York, United States: Oxford University Press.

Taft, L. (January 2000), Apology Subverted: The Commodification of Apology, in The Yale Law Journal, Volume 109: 1135, (pp. 1135 – 1160). New Haven, United States: The Yale Law Journal Co.


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