What is an Apology?




Apologies have been in the news lately.

President Obama’s recent trip to Hiroshima has been met with criticism from some Americans, reviving the “apology tour” reference.

BACKGROUND INFO:  during Mitt Romney’s RNC acceptance speech (in 2012), he referred to Obama’s “apology tour” through Europe, contrasting it with the “job tour” that he was proposing.  Good as a political sound bite, by the way.

Obviously intended as a criticism, the Obama team quickly countered by assuring readers that Obama hadn’t actually apologized. They did it again with this trip.

When did making an apology become a negative thing to do?

What is it about apologies that make it a pejorative term?  What’s the problem with offering an apology? 

Are there significant  cultural differences in offering (or accepting) an apology?   

Of course there are. Hence, today’s blog post.  



Here’s the full article (with pictures) from the New York Times, May 27, 2016.  At Hiroshima Memorial, Obama Says Nuclear Arms Require “Moral Revolution


As with all my 21st century research questions, I turned to the Internet. There, through an amazing array of articles, I learned about

  • “The Structure of Effective Apologies” (published in the  May 2016 issue of Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, here is the abstract), which claims that the best-received apologies contained all six of the following elements:

1. Expression of regret
2. Explanation of what went wrong
3. Acknowledgment of responsibility
4. Declaration of repentance
5. Offer of repair
6. Request for forgiveness

  • How to determine a “real” apology from all the others, including reference to the many “I’m sorry IF …” apology type (politicians seem to be particularly good as these).
  • The many lists of “The Top x Types of Apologies.”  Yup, I had my choice of the 5 types, 3 types, or 7 types lists.  Among them I learned about the “Mistakes were made” type of apology including a very clever nod to  Adam and Eve, who, it seems, eventually admitted to God that “apples were eaten.”
  • The various goals that apology givers seek

I jotted down some notes on this last one, thinking I had the beginnings of an alliterative piece about how apologies (or apologizers) seek to:

assuage or
gain approval

Fortunately, I didn’t go anywhere with that. Suffice it to say that those who make a practice of apologizing at every turn are generally socially shunned.

It was all quite mind-boggling.


There’s even a website called SorryWatch, dedicated to “Analyzing apologies in the news, media, history and literature. We condemn the bad and exalt the good.”

Written by two clever women who go by the aliases Sumac and Snarly, I’m thinking of adding their site to my list of “What I’m Also Reading” over there in the sidebar.  (You’d never noticed that list before, had you?)

There are also the sarcastic apologies. You might enjoy reading Benjamin Franklin’s essay in which he apologizes for printing an ad for which he’d been roundly criticized. It is considered by many to be the very first “political apology, “ and, given B. F.’s dry wit, is entertaining. It’s also long.


All in all, I came away with the notion that for many, saying “I’m sorry” is, as Elton John told us, indeed “the hardest word.”  Here’s Elton John singing his song.



Somewhere along the way, my fellow Americans have forgotten what power a truly sincere apology contains.

Apologies are powerful opportunities to bridge unintended gaps in relationships; to heal lost trust; and to increase commitment, satisfaction, loyalty, and cooperation.

Here’s an apology that I often found used as an example of an apology “rightly done.”  It’s Jason Alexander (George, of Seinfeld fame) apologizing for a joke he made.

What makes it such a good apology?

As most “post-joke apologies” go, Alexander recognized how he had caused offense, owned his part in it, and used his apology to hold a conversation about it, educating others in the process. All with obvious sincerity.


Let’s return to Obama’s recent trip to Hiroshima.

The cultural divide between collectivist and individualistic cultures can find no better examples than Japan and the U.S.

But how to express that here?

Then I found images. Lots and lots of images and clever sayings about “the apology.”


This one I am dubbing the “American” apology, perfect for a culture that is highly individualistic — emphasizing independence and autonomy.

It expresses regret, 

it acknowledges responsibility, and 

it seeks to offer compensation (not necessarily financial). 

How different is the image I chose for Japan.



In the news stories following Obama’s May 27th visit to Hiroshima, I was struck not only by the many voices of criticism from home that he was, once again, “apologizing,” but by the Japanese voices concerned that he had not apologized enough.

Takeshi Suzuki, a professor at Meiji University’s School of Information and Communication, addresses the cultural difference in apologies in Japan and the U.S.

“If the head of the state admits responsibility … the Japanese people will forgive (and forget). In Japan, showing remorse is advantageous.  Yet in the U.S., they have to consider the legal consequences once they admit accountability.”

The “legal consequences:”  Liability. Law suits. Money. How American!

I read the full text of Obama’s actual words. As I did so, it occurred to me that he understood what it was the Japanese sought: a recognition of their pain and an opportunity to address a longstanding “elephant in the living room” and put it behind them.

The United States and Japan have forged not only an alliance but a friendship that has won far more for our people than we could ever claim through war.

Both sides had wrought much destruction in war and both sides now were acknowledging their mutual commitment to peace. In so doing, he and Japan’s Prime Minister strengthened the relationship.



Isn’t that what we are all about? Aren’t we eager (social animals that we are) for connection, friendship, validation?  The price of those things, it has often seemed to me, is in the art of the apology. It is the bridge that connects us when we have erred, the bridge that brings us back together again when bonds have been broken, misunderstandings birthed, or trust shattered.

The apology, appropriately offered and sincerely made, is the oil that keeps society’s machinery running.


How about you? What’s your take on making an apology? Must they always be so difficult? 


10 Responses

  1. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    I had read the speech earlier, and I thought it was beautifully written. (I thought of using a phrase or two in a poem.) I think many of the people who are upset and harping on this “apology” are also people who are against anything Obama does. Whether you think dropping a nuclear bomb was the right step or not to end WWII, you can still acknowledge that it was an unprecedented horror. How is it ever wrong to acknowledge that war and death is horrible?

    Japan has also had an issue with apologizing–or not–for the “comfort women,” sex slaves of WWII.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks Merril. I can always count on you to add something to the pot. I’d forgotten the long-neglected “comfort women” issue.

  2. Susan Jackson
    | Reply

    Haters over here love to throw out anything to tarnish the president. He stated he wasn’t going over there to apologize and wouldn’t. While the Japanese killed over 3000 in Hawaii we killed over 100,000 with the bomb.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I hadn’t known the numbers before, Susan. Thanks. Staggering.

  3. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Good post, Janet.

    Contrition seems to be anathema to those with strong nationalistic and/or authoritarian inclinations. It seems to me a manifestation of a highly narcissistic world view.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      It’s the need to be right at all costs, writ large me thinks. Sends not only people but whole societies in opposite directions. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Tim. I’m thinking of “American exceptionalism” in a new way now.

  4. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Apologies are colored by motivation, I think. In my book, sincere motive = genuine apology. Sometimes, though, as Jason Alexander reminds us, we forget to make it right. You did an expert job with research here and I see your readers are filling in with details, other examples.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I had a good friend many years ago who’s mantra was “check your motives.” I’ve used it many times and recently passed it along to a grandson. Thanks for the reminder, Marian. I’m really enjoying the conversation we have here each week. Conversations take people and we don’t always have to agree; we just need to want to come together in civility and mutual respect. It’s nice when affection arrives too. 🙂

  5. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    Unfortunately for the world at large, making apologies, have entered the realm of politics. For myself I make apologies when I have harmed someone or something with my words and actions. It might be difficult for me to apologize for something I’m ashamed of having done but it is part of my spiritual journey. In making amends I open myself up and become one with the universe. My intention always is to do no harm. But as I am simply a human being, I will always make mistakes.

  6. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    What a good reminder, Joan, that we are only human after all. And as such we are always making mistakes of one sort or another. I was thinking earlier today what an empty life one must have it there were never a need for an apology. Sterile comes to mind. Living our lives with gusto, we’re bound to step on someone’s toes; we apologize as needed (sometimes peoples’ toes are simply out of place) and we move on.

    Remember when I was trying to explain why I wanted to rename my blog “Offend me, please.” ? It’s the resulting conversation I’m after.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a blog you'd like to share? I use CommentLuv Click here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.