A non-apology apology is a statement that has the form of an apology but does not express the expected contrition. It is common in both politics and public relations. It most commonly entails the speaker saying that he or she is sorry not for a behavior, statement or misdeed, but rather is sorry only because a person who has been aggrieved is requesting the apology, expressing a grievance, or is threatening some form of retribution or retaliation.
An example of a non-apology apology would be saying "I'm sorry that you feel that way" to someone who has been offended by a statement. This apology does not admit that there was anything wrong with the remarks made, and additionally, it may be taken as insinuating that the person taking offense was excessively thin-skinned or irrational in taking offense at the remarks in the first place.
Statements that use the word "sorry" but do not express responsibility for wrongdoing may be meaningful expressions of regret, but such statements can also be used to elicit forgiveness without acknowledging fault.
Non-apology apologizers may be trying to avoid litigation that might result from an admission of guilt or responsibility. Many states including Massachusetts and California have laws that prevent a plaintiff from using an apology as evidence of liability. For example, a medical doctor may apologize to a patient for a bad outcome without fearing that the apology can be used against them at trial as evidence of negligence.
In November 2008, the Alberta legislature passed an amendment to the existing Alberta Evidence Act, R.S.A. 2000, c. A-18 (the “Act”), geared at protecting apologizing parties from risks of legal liability and loss of insurance coverage. Section 26.1 of the Act provides that an apology does not constitute an express or implied admission of fault or liability.
"Mistakes were made"
The expression "mistakes were made" is commonly used as a rhetorical device, whereby a speaker acknowledges that a situation was handled poorly or inappropriately but seeks to evade any direct admission or accusation of responsibility by using the passive voice. The acknowledgement of "mistakes" is framed in an abstract sense with no direct reference to who made the mistakes. An active voice construction would be along the lines of "I made mistakes" or "John Doe made mistakes." The speaker neither accepts personal responsibility nor accuses anyone else. The word "mistakes" also does not imply intent.
The New York Times has called the phrase a "classic Washington linguistic construct." Political consultant William Schneider suggested that this usage be referred to as the "past exonerative" tense, and commentator William Safire has defined the phrase as "[a] passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it". A commentator at NPR declared this expression to be "the king of non-apologies". While perhaps most famous in politics, the phrase has also been used in business, sports, and entertainment.
The "if apology"
Attorney and business ethics expert Lauren Bloom, author of The Art of the Apology, mentions the "if apology" as a favorite of politicians, with lines such as "I apologize if I offended anyone".
One of the first references was in the New York Times by Richard Mooney in his 1992 editorial notebook "If This Sounds Slippery ... How to Apologize And Admit Nothing." This was mainly in regard to Senator Bob Packwood, "Only in the event that someone should choose to take offense, why then he's sorry". Mooney goes on to cite Bill Clinton, who said of Mario Cuomo: "If the remarks on the tape left anyone with the impression that I was disrespectful to either Governor Cuomo or Italian-Americans, then I deeply regret it." A famous example involved racially insensitive remarks made by golfer Fuzzy Zoeller about Tiger Woods; Zoeller's comments and his half-hearted "if apology" were news for days and resulted in Zoeller's being dropped from a commercial tie-in with K-Mart.
This kind of apology shifts the blame onto the offended party, and denies personal acceptance of wrongdoing, as in "I'm sorry if you were offended by what I said". The "if" implies that the apologiser either doesn't even know they did wrong (and did not bother to find out) or else does not acknowledge that they did wrong and so are pretending to apologise because they feel obligated to rather than because they are actually sorry. There is no confirmation that the apologiser actually regrets anything or has learnt anything from what they did that was wrong. According to John Kador in Effective Apology, "Adding the word if or any other conditional modifier to an apology makes it a non-apology."
On July 24, 1991, The New York Times stated that Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans had offered the prime minister of Malaysia "what might best be described as a non-apology apology" for what the Malaysian government regarded as an insulting portrayal of Malaysia in an Australian television series, Embassy. Speaking to journalists, Mr Evans said he had "wanted to acknowledge fault where such acknowledgment is appropriate."
Humorist Bruce McCall, in a 2001 New York Times piece entitled "The Perfect Non-apology Apology", defined the term as referring to "sufficiently artful double talk" designed to enable one to "get what you want by seeming to express regret while actually accepting no blame," and suggested some tongue-in-cheek apologies, such as:
Nobody is sorrier than me that the police officer had to spend his valuable time writing out a parking ticket on my car. Though from my personal standpoint I know for a certainty that the meter had not yet expired, please accept my expression of deep regret at this unfortunate incident.
Criticism of the meme
Typologies of apology note that apologies cover a range of situations and degrees of regret, remorse, and contrition, and that success is to be gauged by the result of the apology rather than the degree of contrition involved. Deborah Levi offers the following possibilities:
- Tactical apology—when a person accused of wrongdoing offers an apology that is rhetorical and strategic—and not necessary heartfelt
- Explanation apology—when a person accused of wrongdoing offers an apology that is merely a gesture that is meant to counter an accusation of wrongdoing. In fact, it may be used to defend the actions of the accused
- Formalistic apology—when a person accused of wrongdoing offers an apology after being admonished to do so by an authority ﬁgure—who may also be the individual who suffered the wrongdoing
- Happy ending apology—when a person accused of wrongdoing fully acknowledges responsibility for the wrongdoing and is genuinely remorseful
While the non-apology apology is clearly unsuited to situations where an expression of remorse, contrition, and future change are obviously desirable (e.g. the "happy ending" apology), it may prove extremely useful in situations where little can be done to assuage the apparent offence or prevent its repetition, as when an airline apologises for a delay, in the full knowledge that a future repetition is inevitable. Such tactical apologies may have beneficial effects simply through the validation of the emotions of the offended party: they answer the basic human need for disagreeable emotions to be recognised and acknowledged as important, while protecting the apparently offending party from an expression of remorse. Negotiators often use this tactic to calm tense situations: "an apology can defuse emotions effectively, even when you do not acknowledge personal responsibility for the action or admit an intention to harm. An apology may be one of the least costly and most rewarding investments you can make."
- Evasion (ethics)
- List of political catch phrases
- Logical fallacies
- Non-denial denial
- Past exonerative
- Spin (public relations)
- Weasel words
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