Everyone from Donna Karan to James Corden and the French Economy minister has said sorry for misspeaking about sexual misconduct; experts on what to look out for
The Harvey Weinstein scandal has unleashed a trail of sorrys.
First, there was one from the disgraced movie mogul himself, in which he said he “respect[s] all women and regret[s] what happened.” Then came a mea culpa from fashion designer Donna Karan, who put her foot in her mouth by insinuating that women who dressed provocatively were inviting unwanted male attention. “I just went off on something that I shouldn’t have, and I apologize profusely. I regret it so strongly,” she recently told Women’s Wear Daily.
“The Late Late Show’s” James Corden apologized for making an off-color joke about women who had supposedly seen Weinstein bathe. And this morning, French economy minister Bruno Le Maire begged pardon for a badly phrased answer when he initially said he wouldn’t “denounce” a colleague for sexual harassment if he witnessed such an incident.
Since sorry is no longer the hardest word to say, how can one tell if someone is truly being contrite? Fortunately, experts have devised certain tells if you’re ever in a position to forgive.
To be clear, sexual assault is no laughing matter. I was not trying to make light of Harvey’s inexcusable behavior, (1/2)
— James Corden (@JKCorden) October 15, 2017
It’ll be easier for you to determine this if the apology take place in person. “It’s challenging when the apology is written because you want to see the facial cues and body language with which the apology is delivered,” says Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist. “You want to be looking for whether the deliverer means it.”
Since lasting relationships are built on mutual empathy, you’ll want to see some of your hurt mirrored in the other person’s expressions. “You want to know they really care about your feelings and feel guilty, so they have to look as if they feel the injury that they’ve caused you,” says Walfish, author of “The Self-Aware Parent.” This includes telltale signs of remorse pretty innate to humans, such as the blush of embarrassment.
But even if your transgressor can’t look you in the eye, there are still other cues you can use to tell if they’re sincere. They should avoid what Edwin Battistella, the author of “Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology,” calls “verbal judo.” This includes phrases like “I apologize if anyone was offended” and vague statements like “I’m sorry for what I said.” These usually indicate the person is trying to shirk responsibility.
Additionally, watch out for people who try to push off their mistake onto other people or circumstances. For example, Weinstein was widely mocked for attributing his reported misconduct to having come of age in the 1960s and 70s. In the office, this could mean attributing blame for not completing a project on a junior college they’re managing.
— WWD (@wwd) October 16, 2017
“The strongest apologies really explore what they did wrong,” says Battistella, a linguistics professor at Southern Oregon University. He notes that a masterclass was the apology issued by retired Gen. David Petraeus a year after he resigned as director of the Central Intelligence Agency for allegedly providing classified information to a woman with whom he was having an affair.
“He explored what he did wrong and then talked about how he was going to behave in the future that was different,” Battistella says. “Saying that your behavior doesn’t match your record is one thing. But if they look forward, there’s a sense of accountability. They’ve set themselves a challenge to behave” up to.
“We categorize people into either a good or bad basket, friend or foe,” says Walfish. “After someone wrongs you, part of the requirement for landing in the good guy basket again is knowing that they won’t continue to repeat the offense.”
It’s also key to remember that a late apology isn’t necessarily an insincere one. Walfish points out that children are often quick to apologize for their faults—but that’s because they want to get out of their parents’ hair and not because they’re genuinely sorry.
“You offer the apology when you genuinely mean it,” she says. “The timing is not the issue. If you don’t feel it, it’s better to tape your mouth then to say something phony. The other person will know.”
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