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Perfect apology: The art of saying I'm sorry

Perfect apology: The art of saying I'm sorry

In its opening weekend Stars Wars: The Force Awakens made an estimated US$247-million. Universal applause and pop open champagne bottles, right? That’s not how franchise creator George Lucas felt. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Lucas discussed the stories he’d created and compared them to his children. The forces - of logic and sanity – weren’t with him when he called the folks at Disney ‘white slavers’.

Later Lucas backpedaled and apologized: “I rarely go out with statements to clarify my feelings but I feel it is important to make it clear that I am thrilled that Disney has the franchise and is moving it in such exciting directions… I’m blown away with the record breaking blockbuster success of the new movie.”

Over the years apologies from public figures have become commonplace, tumbling out as relentlessly as the seasons change. Some folks are utterly remorseful and regret their offenses, which range from tempest in a teapot-sized (witness Steve Harvey and the Miss Universe affair) while others shrug off massive and mega-damaging (wie geht’s, Volkswagen!). 

"Much of our private and public moral discourse occurs in the giving, receiving, or demanding of apologies, yet we rarely make explicit precisely what we expect from a gesture of contrition,” writes University of New Hampshire philosophy professor Nick Smith, in his book I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies. “As a result, apologizing has become a vague, clumsy, and sometimes spiteful ritual."

How can we, mere mortals, ensure our apologies are regarded as sincere rather than vague and clumsy or spiteful? Even after a colossal screw-up? Like the time we wrote an inflammatory message slagging off the boss and sent the email to that boss rather to a friend two cubicles over. Uh-oh.

There is a way to bounce back after a massive mistake, experts say. Fess up, be sincere, and do it quickly. 

Timing is everything. “Generally speaking, an immediate apology is more effective than a late one, like the one Tiger Woods gave, which was delivered about three months into his cheating scandal,” explains Helen Ofosu, a psychologist and founder of I/O Advisory Services, a career consulting service in Ottawa, ON.

The quality and effectiveness of an apology is determined by: expression of remorse, acceptance of responsibility, and an offer of repair, she says.

Other 'apology frameworks' include the offer of anexplanation, acknowledgement of harm, and the admission of wrongdoing, adds Dr. Ofosu, a former government employee, who previously worked at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, and the Department of National Defense, as well as at Canada’s Public Service Commission.

“Those comprehensive apologies are much more effective at promoting reconciliation and decreasing anger and blame towards the transgressors because they are judged by victims as being more sincere,” she says.

In our petite Apology Hall of Fame there are good, bad, and uncomfortable statements. Dr. Ofosu offers up her insights and you can also decide for yourself which are sincere and which are simplyawful. We begin with Miss Universe…

Beauty Pageant

The error: In December 2015, Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner at the 2015 Miss Universe pageant and for a few minutes, Miss Colombia wore the crown not the real winner, Miss Philippines.

The live, on-air apology in front of a global TV audience: “Ok folks. Uh.. there’s.. I have to apologize.”

Dr. Ofosu’s overview:“The fact that Harvey’s statement was authentic rather than scripted, when he was in such a contrived environment, made it more believable and genuine. His apology was also effective because he apologized early and quickly.

By those standards, Harvey did well, so it’s no wonder he’s been offered the opportunity to host the pageant again for the next five years.”

Volkswagen Scandal Effect Immediate in VW Showrooms


The error: In October 2015, Volkswagen’s U.S. boss apologized to Congress for installing “defeat devices” that could cheat emissions tests on its diesel cars. At the same time Michael Horn, CEO of Volkswagen of America, denied responsibility for the emission scandal

The apology to a Congressional House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee: “To my understanding this was not a corporate decision, this was something an individual did,” Horn said.

Dr. Ofosu’s overview: “The Volkswagen apology was weak, especially for such a major transgression. There was no expression of remorse, no acceptance of responsibility, and no offer of repair. To make this poor apology even worse, it was the dictionary definition of perfunctory, superficial, that is ‘something that is done without energy or enthusiasm because of habit or because it is expected.’

Volkswagen really needed a CEO with more emotional intelligence to offer an apology. It’s no wonder most people had little pity for the CEO who ultimately stepped down or reportedly was fired due to this scandal.”


Justin Bieber stormed out of a TV appearance in Norway in October, just days after he walked out of a radio interview in Spain. The incident happened when he was preparing to sing on the show and a fan spilled a drink on stage, which he tried to clean-up, but the crowd blocked him and he got frustrated. Afterwards, the heartthrob took some time out to chill - and went skateboarding - but blamed a 'rough week' of long days and said he was 'working on getting better at responding not reacting'.


The error: In Oct. 2015, Justin Bieber stormed off a stage in Norway after one song.

The apology via Instagram:“Sadly it’s been a rough week for me, long days, no sleep, while having to be ‘on’ as they would say for the cameras fans etc. In no way did I mean to come across as mean, but chose to end the show as the people in the front row would not listen.

I am sorry and for anyone I may have disappointed im sorry.”

Dr. Ofosu’s overview:“The apology was probably well received because it was immediate. He seemed unscripted and genuine even though there was no offer to “repair” via reimbursement or another means, no promise to do better in the future, and no request for forgiveness.

There was however, an expression of remorse, it included an explanation of his rough week, acknowledgement of harm, and his admission of wrongdoing. For those reasons this apology is OK.”


Former Representative Anthony Weiner (D-NY) had ample practice with apologies and still never managed to get them right


The error: In 2011, U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner was involved in sexting scandals after he sent photos of his licorice and gobstoppers to women he’d met via Twitter. First, he claimed someone hacked his account, then recanted, and acknowledged that he did, in fact, send pictures of the bulge in his boxer-briefs to strangers.

The apology at a press conference: “To be clear, the picture was of me, and I sent it. I am deeply sorry for the pain this has caused my wife, and our family, my constituents, my friends, my supporters and my staff. I lied because I was ashamed at what I had done, and I didn’t want to get caught.”

Dr. Ofosu’s overview: “Weiner’s original denial was inadequate and he could have made this statement right off the bat.”

So why did he wait?

“Most people want to maintain their self-worth and integrity. Hurting others, especially in such a personal and gratuitous way, can threaten our self-perception that we’re good and appropriate. Further, an admission of fault, acknowledging that he’s hurt others, and seeking forgiveness may have diminished Weiner’s sense of power and threatened his sense of integrity.

I can still see his humiliated-looking wife standing beside him while he denied his bad behaviour. In my opinion she was further diminished by participating in his sham apology.”

Former President Bill Clinton significantly weakened his apology by first trying the denial route


The error: In 1999, President Bill Clinton, then 49, had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinksy, a 22-year-old White House intern. Clinton denied, denied, and then denied some more. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never. These allegations are false.”

The apology in a televised address from the Map Room at the White House: “Indeed I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.”

Dr. Ofosu’s overview: “In this version of President Clinton’s apology there was an expression of remorse, it included an explanation, and it included an admission of wrongdoing.

Still, it was a failure because there was no acknowledgement of the harm he caused, no acknowledgement of the pain he caused his wife and daughter, or the pain he caused to the young intern, Monica Lewinsky. Clinton’s apology also failed because it felt very contrived, heavily scripted, and it came weeks or months after the scandal broke.”