Experts share what to look out for when figures like the Starbucks exec, Facebook CEO or Mario Batali say they’re sorry
Apologizing can be one tall order.
That’s what Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson learned this week after two black men were arrested for trespassing at a Philadelphia Starbucks, after they allegedly asked to use the bathroom and then sat down without purchasing anything. The incident sparked protests and calls to boycott the coffee chain.
“I’ll say the circumstances surrounding the incident and the outcome at our store on Thursday were reprehensible,” Johnson told “Good Morning America” in an interview Monday. “They were wrong, and for that, I personally apologize to the gentlemen that visited our store.”
The manager who called the police no longer works for the coffee giant, said Johnson, who reportedly also met with the two men. The company has launched an investigation into its practices, the exec said in a separate statement, and plans to “make any necessary changes to our practices that would help prevent such an occurrence from ever happening again.”
Johnson isn’t the only one with some explaining to do. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took heat last month after waiting four days to respond to reports that data firm Cambridge Analytica exploited millions of Facebook users’ personal information during the 2016 U.S. election. Zuck later took steps to mitigate the damage in a Facebook post that listed a timeline of events leading up to the security breach, and shared the steps his social network was taking to address privacy concerns and prevent this from happening again — but still got called out for not actually saying “I’m sorry.”
He would go on to remedy that during a national apology tour that included a two-day stint testifying before Congress. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake. And I’m sorry,” Zuckerberg told the Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees last week. “I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”
The rise of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal last year has also unleashed a flood of high-profile apologies — and some have fumbled in their responses. Mario Batali issued a half-baked apology for the sexual harassment allegations against him in December with an awkward email newsletter that ended with a bizarre recipe for cinnamon rolls.
“As many of you know, this week there has been some news coverage about some of my past behavior,” he wrote. “I have made many mistakes and I am so very sorry that I have disappointed my friends, my family, my fans and my team. My behavior was wrong and there are no excuses. I take full responsibility.”
The apology could have ended there, but instead, Batali tried to sweeten it up in the worst way: “I will work every day to regain your respect and trust. … ps. in case you’re searching for a holiday-inspired breakfast, these Pizza Dough Cinnamon Rolls are a fan favorite.”
Many called the shameless food plug distasteful and tone-deaf.
Guess he misplaced the humble pie recipe
— Eric Nagourney (@EricNagourney) December 16, 2017
Weinstein’s own sorry apology left much to be desired. 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 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 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.
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
Since sorry is no longer the hardest word to say, how can one tell if someone is truly being contrite? Experts have devised certain tells if you’re ever in a position to forgive.
Apologies made in person come across as most sincere. “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 colleague 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. Zuckerberg took that step, and Battistella notes that a masterclass was the apology issued by retired Gen. David Petraeus a year after he resigned as director of the CIA 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 like Zuckerberg’s 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.”
This article was originally published on Oct. 16, 2017 and has been updated to include Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson.
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