Apology allows both parties to move on, but not necessarily together.

Apology allows both parties to move on, but not necessarily together.

In Smashed, a 2012 film about an elementary school teacher dealing with alcoholism, the consequences of alcoholism and the power of apology are depicted in sharp relief.

Alcoholics lie—all addicts lie. That’s one reality the movie depicts. Also true: it’s often the deception that creates the most immediate difficulties for the alcoholic. The movie dramatizes how effective apology is the alcoholic’s most powerful took for recovery, redemption, and healing. It’s no accident that thougthful apology is one of the twelve steps of recovery.  

Candor and Apology   

But candor and apology are difficult and unpredictable in their consequences. Apology never offers a free ride.  

In Smashed, Kate Hannah, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is hung over and doing her best with class of the most precocious and outspoken first graders in history. When she vomits in front of the class, she is intensely embarrassed. When one of the students asks if she’s pregnant, Kate replies that yes, she is.

Soon the entire school knows and the lie spins out of control. Kate repeats the lie to the school principal and allows her fellow teachers to throw her a baby shower. We see how alcoholism is destroying her life and, when she hits rock bottom and decides, with the help of a fellow teacher, how AA offers a shot at recovery.   

But Kate is not yet ready to embrace the truth. As the term progresses, her students question why her belly is not swelling. In response, Kate says she’s no longer pregnant. But she learns that lies can’t be ignored. “Did you kill your baby?” a student improbably asks? Kate doubles down on the lie and feigns a miscarriage. 

It’s not a pretty conversation to have with first-graders and a parent predictably complains to the principal. At this point Kate is ready to finally let go of the lie. Her apology is not perfect. She is a little too defensive. But she says it straight:

                   Principal Barnes, I wasn’t ever pregnant.  I lied—to the class and to you—because I was scared. . . I’m really sorry. I am.

It gets worse as she tries to explain herself. And then Kate learns an indispensable truth about apology: mistakes and lies have consequences.

Trust has been broken. The principal forces Kate to take a leave of absence and find another job.

                 I can’t have you here anymore.

And thus demonstrates the flinty truth about apology. 

Not Necessarily Together

Apology is healing and it’s redemptive. It allows both parties to move forward but not necessarily together. Kate is through with the lie but still has some demons to defeat before she finally makes the changes in her life. 

Kate is now free of her job and shortly free of her alcoholic husband. Only now does she have the scope to make the changes she needs to recover. Depending on the offense, apology often requires us to strip ourselves of all that we once valued, the lighter to make our way on the difficult journey of redemption.









Surly waiters are thankfully very rare.

Surly waiters are thankfully very rare.

Is there such a thing as an insincere waiter?

An inattentive waiter, sure. An incompetent waiter, all too often. Even a surly waiter, on thankfully rare occasions.

But if your meal is delivered accurately, politely, in a timely manner, do you ever speculate if the waiter’s heart is really in it?

So why are we so hung up on sincerity and apology?

We seem to be very concerned that we might be duped into accepting an apology from an offender who’s not really sincere. 

For example, NJ governor Chris Christie has offered profuse apologies for his administration’s roll in the George Washington traffic jam stunt. 

But many people suggest that Christie’s apologies are just expressions of political cynicism and he doesn’t really mean them. 

It’s a useless exercise to speculate on what goes on inside another person’s soul. We can never really know for sure, so let it go.

Apology is a Verb

That inner process doesn’t really matter because it’s the performance part of apology that’s important. 

Just like a waiter serving a meal. 

If your dinner is delivered in a professional manner, just accept the meal, thank the waiter, enjoy the meal, and leave a nice tip.

Same thing with Christie’s apology.

Is the apology delivered in a professional manner? Has Christie said the right words? Has he accepted responsibility? Has his body language been appropriate? Has he taken responsive action? Has he made promises about future behavior and, most important, has he kept those promises? 

If the answer to these questions is yes, then Christie has delivered an apology you should be able to accept on the strength of the delivery and his subsequent performance.

Doing anything else is like stiffing a waiter who has performed professionally because you are not sufficiently convinced of his or her sincerity.






Governor Chris Christie apologized to everyone, including the mayor of Fort Lee

Governor Chris Christie apologized to everyone, including the mayor of Fort Lee

N.J. Governor Chris Christie offered a series of apologies in response to disclosures that some of his top political deputies were responsible for a stunt of petty political revenge that inconvenienced tens of thousands of commuters and residents of Fort Lee on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge.

Nothing in the emerging scandal as I write this suggests that Gov. Christie orchestrated the stunt or knew about it before or after the fact.

He has denied such knowledge. So for the purposes of this discussion, let’s consider just what apology is appropriate for a senior executive who has no hands-on direct responsibility for the offense.  


In ethical terms, for what conduct does Christie have standing to apologize? 

Christie actually was very precise in his apology, which he offered in two pieces.

First, he admitted that his administration acted badly and that every citizen of New Jersey, every resident of Fort Lee, and every member of the New Jersey legislature deserved an apology. This unconditional apology was offered by Christie acting as the senior executive of the state.

Second, he was precise in offering a more personal apology for his personal conduct—namely his failure “to understand the true nature of this problem.”

Failure to Act  

A lot of sins fall into that failure and I wished he had been more specific in naming them.  It’s fine that he said he was “embarrassed and humiliated by the conduct of some of the people on my team,” but his apology would have been stronger if he apologized for what he did as well as what he failed to do. 

As part of his apology, he fired his deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly. He accepted the resignation of a commissioner on the Port Authority, and he reprimanded Bill Stepien, his 2013 campaign manager, not to apply to become state Republican Party chairman or to work with the Republican Governors Association, which Christie will soon lead. 

Accountability is good. But Christie could have done more to hold himself more accountable.

For example, he hired these aides and trusted them. Did he serve the people of New Jersey well in doing so? He could have apologized for making some very poor hiring decisions. 

Culture Trumps Everything

More pointedly, he could have pondered to what extent, if any, the culture his leadership style represented, may have contributed to a climate in which his aides thought such stunts could possibly be defended. A wise leader understands that the signals he or she sends help determine organizational culture.   

This is a tough conversation to have. Indeed, Christie is aware that his reputation as a bully may well be implicated in the offensive conduct.  It does not help any apology for the offender to deny—as Christie did—that he is not a bully.    

Let’s see how the investigation plays out. 

Unless there’s a smoking gun that Christie knew about the stunt or covered it up, I expect he will survive politically. 

But if he wants to get the matter behind him, he must start looking deep within himself to see if he can connect the dots between the governor he is and the actions of his deputies. Only when he can connect the dots can he take the necessary action—apology being just the first step—can he and the voters of New Jersey move forward together.

A recent report on NPR described some specious research that suggested that apologizing doesn’t make the offender feel better. That refusing to apologize can actually feel good.
That may be so, but only in the most self-defeating, anal-retentive kind of way.Want to feel better? Apologize.
Want to feel better? Apologize.
What does Feeling Good Have to Do With It?
Yes, refusing to apologize confers a certain kind of power and that can feel good.  Toddlers across the ages have figured out that refusing to control their bowel movements also confers a certain kind of power and can feel good. But there’s no future in it. The only legitimate course when you’re wrong is to apologize. It may or may not feel good in the moment, but apology yields the greatest good. Progress is made one apology at a time.
So let’s take a quick look at this constipated research.
In a recent paper, researchers Tyler G. Okimoto, Michael Wenzel and Kyli Hedrick reported that apologizing doesn’t necessarily make you feel better. The researchers surveyed 228 Americans and asked them to remember a time they had done something wrong. The researchers then asked the people whether they had apologized, or made a decision not to apologize even though they knew they were in the wrong.

 They then divided the people at random and asked some to compose an email where they apologized for their actions, or compose an email refusing to apologize.

“We do find that apologies do make apologizers feel better, but the interesting thing is that refusals to apologize also make people feel better and, in fact, in some cases it makes them feel better than an apology would have,” Okimoto said in an interview with NPR. Okimoto said that people who refused to apologize actually ended up with an increased sense of integrity.

In both cases, Okimoto said, refusing to apologize provided psychological benefits. “When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered,” he said. “That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth.”

Anal-Retentive Research

The research reminds me  of Sigmund Freud and his description of the anal stage of development. Freud, the father of psychotherapy (it has no mother), posited that overly controlling parents can lead the child to become an anal-retentive personality.

If the parents tried forcing the child to learn to control their bowel movements, the child may react by asserting their own power. They do this by either deliberately holding or releasing their bowels in a manner most irritating to authority figures.

Substitute bowel movement for apology in this research and you have a good summary of what a silly guide this is for adults. Shame on NPR for covering it so uncritically.

Good Apology Is Satisfying

My research demonstrates over and over again that when you hurt somebody, the most powerful and satisfactory thing you can do to liberate yourself is to apologize. The more complete and undefended the apology, the better you will feel in the long run. The long run is the only run with a future.

That’s because only by acknowledging, naming, and ultimately accepting your mistakes, are you able to embrace your humility and make room for your true self, imperfect and all too human, just like everyone else.

Or you can just hold it in and hold out for a world in which constipation is an attractive quality.


Judges have some peculiar ideas about apology.

First, Solano County, California juvenile court judge, John  Ellis made a youthful offender write an apology to his victim, in this case his former teacher.

Many judges force offenders to apologize to victims. I don’t think forced apologies are worth much.  I think it’s great when offenders apologize to their victims, but the apology has to be voluntary for it to mean anything. But Judge Ellis forced a juvenile identified as J.C. to apologize to his teacher as a condition of probation. And the apology had to be more than 50 words, by court order.

But that’s not my main beef.

The youthful offender J.C. refused to apologize because he maintained his innocence.  So the case was appealed to the First District Court  of Appeal. The court ruled that innocence has nothing to do with it. J.C. could and should apologize while still maintaining his innocence.  J.C. was ordered to apologize even if in his own mind he did nothing wrong.

Maybe we should quickly review the facts of the case.

J.C. had performed some household work for one of his high school teachers in Vallejo.  Somewhat later, the teacher reported some jewelry was stolen. Then J.C. showed up in the teacher’s classroom wearing a pendant that  the teacher recognized as among the stolen items.

J.C’s explanation was pathetic. He told the police that he had found the pendant while vacuuming several months  earlier, and sily forgot to return it. Judge Ellis didn’t believe him and ruled that J.C. was guilty of grand theft. He  put J.C. on three years’ probation and ordered him to write an apology, of at  least 50 words, to his teacher.

But J.C. refused to apologize and appealed. His lawyer argued that the compelled apology would violate J.C.’s constitutional right against having  to incriminate himself. But the First District Court of Appeal said an apology  doesn’t necessarily mean an admission of guilt.

In a 3-0 ruling, the court betrayed a total misunderstanding of apology. The court even turned to the American  Heritage Dictionary, which defines an apology as an expression of regret,  and defines regret as “a feeling of sorrow, disappointment, distress, or remorse  about something that one wishes could be different.” So far so good. But then the court ruled that J.C. could satisfy the dictionary, and the judge’s order,  by  telling his teacher that he’s sorry for what happened to her, with his own  explanation of how it happened.

In other words, the court contemplates an apology that expresses regret for what happened but denies responsibility.

That’s not an apology, that’s an expression of sympathy.

The whole point of apology is that it’s voluntary because the offender accepts the value of giving up the battle with the facts; because he values the relationship more than the need to be right.

Sometimes it’s important to hold out being right. Sometimes it’s important to apologize. It’s important to know the difference and courts should try to preserve the difference.



The fallout from the Penn State University Jerry Sandusky child molestation matter continues to be toxic.Penn State

At a recent Penn State Board of Trustees meeting, Kenneth Frazier, a Penn State alumni, member of the board, and CEO and chairman of Merck Pharmaceutical had an angry exchange with Bill Cluck, a lawyer testifying before the board.  In an angry exchange, captured on audio and posted on YouTube, Frazier inexplicably played the race card in criticizing Cluck by invoking the O.J. Simpson trial:

“You are the only person who looks like you who believes the OJ Simpson verdict was correct.”  

This was a racist, unwarranted attempt to delegitimize a member with a different point of view. That Frazier is himself African-American has no bearing on the matter.  I think Frazier quickly accepted that he crossed a line.

First Apology

Kenneth Frazier apologized for insulting William Cluck

Kenneth Frazier apologized for insulting William Cluck

Frazier’s first apology was as insipid as his attack:

“I employed an analogy that was unhelpful. Absolutely no offense was intended. I apologize,”  

Readers of this blog know what a sad apology this is. It did not address the racial reference, the central offense. It wasn’t even an analogy. And no one cares about the offender’s intention.

On March 16, 2013 the CentreDaily newspaper published an editorial titled Penn State Trustee Frazier Did More Harm Than Good with Outburst.

Second Apology

With the benefit of counsel from Merck, whose brand Frazier threatened, a second apology was issued in the form of a letter to the editor on March 17, 2013. Here are the salient aspects of that apology:

You are right (“Our View | Penn State trustee Frazier did more harm than good with outburst”).  I accept your central point that, at the board meeting on Thursday, I let my frustration get the better of me and as a result used language that was racially insensitive and inappropriate. For that, I apologize to Mr. (Bill) Cluck, to the Penn State community, and to my colleagues at Merck. In addition, I have called Mr. Cluck to relay personally my sincere apology.

One of my core values is to treat people equally based on their abilities and character. This is likewise a fundamental value at both Penn State and Merck. The words I used did not reflect that principle. I hope that people will see my comments for what they were: a momentary lapse in judgment in the heat of frustration, and not a reflection on what I truly believe and stand for. My commitment to racial equality, diversity and social justice is well-established, and deepens my regret that my poorly chosen words have distracted from the important issues at Penn State.

Another core value I share with my institutions is to acknowledge mistakes and to learn from them. This has been a learning experience for me. As a trustee and business leader, I will strive to remain professional and meet the high standards rightly expected of anyone in my position.


I give Frazier credit for recognizing the real offense (“racial insensitivity”) and apologizing for it in a forthright manner. It is fair that he

Harrisburg attorney William Cluck

Harrisburg attorney William Cluck

apologized to the larger community in this letter as well as issuing a personal apology directly to the victim. I appreciate that he intends to learn from his mistake and has committed to meet the high standards that are expected of leaders in his position.

The apology is less satisfactory in two ways. First, Frazier talks entirely too much about his commitment to racial diversity, etc.  An apology is not the platform for the offender to claim virtues put in question by the offense for which he is apologizing.

Second, the matter of restitution is missing. Restitution is always the trickiest parts of apologies that don’t involve property loss or monetary damages. What, after all, is the proper restitution for an offense like Frazier’s and who, exactly, is the victim that can accept the restitution?  I don’t have a sure fire suggestion, but then that’s Frazier’s responsibility, not mine.  Some critics are calling for Frazier to resign as a token of restitution. I don’t believe resignation is appropriate. Our leaders get to make mistakes and learn from them without being hung out to dry. But I think some restitution is in order. Perhaps a donation to an organization working to help the victims of child molestation.

I am indebted to Larry Schultz for calling this matter to my attention.

Frazier’s Grade

Recognition: A

Responsibility: B

Remorse: A

Restitution: C

Repetition: A

Overall Grade: B+

Pitch Perfect is a 2012 American musical comedy featuring a large ensemble cast of college students who belong to competing a cappella singing groups as they compete with other groups to win a championship.

Pitch Perfect stars an ensmable cast

Pitch Perfect stars a large cast featuring Anna Kendrick . 


The competition between the groups is mirrored by competition between two strong-willed women on the Barden College Barden Bellas singing group.

Freshman Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick) butts heads with an uptight and controlling group leader Aubrey  Posen (Anna Camp  ).  Rehearsals are tense as the two women each try to dominate the other.  Aubrey generally wins these battles, even though she loses the war. Her strategies, brittle personality, and selection of material do not serve the group well.

Finally, at the semi-finals, Becca makes a unilateral decision during the performance to interject La Roux’s “Bulletproof” as an impromptu backup to Aubrey’s traditional arrangement. The members are caught by surprise but quickly regroup and finish up with a performance that pleases the audience.  The judges do not agree. In the ensuring confrontation, Aubrey forces Beca out.


Even though they lost, the Barden Bellas are offered a slot at the Nationals. Beca realizes how much she needs the Bellas and approaches Aubrey and the group to offer a very classy apology:

I just wanted to say that I’m sorry. What I did was a really dick move and I shouldn’t have changed the set without asking you guys and I definitely shouldn’t have left. I let you guys down and I’m really sorry. And, Aubrey, if you would have me, I want back in.

This is a very effective apology: direct, non-defensive, and personal. Beca identifies what she is apologizing for, acknowledges the pain she has caused, and respects Aubrey, the leader of the Bellas, by legitimizing her authority.

All works out.  At the National competition, the Bellas sing a piece arranged by Beca, and win. The apology makes possible the repair of the relationship between the two women and the functioning of the entire group.


In July 2012 I blogged about Jonah Lehrer, the rising journalist and author of three books who flamed out over charges of fabrication and plagiarism, and his apology.  Even though it was a decent apology, it seemed unlikely that Lehrer would soon be trusted as a public figure.

Jonah Lehrer recounts his misdeeds and apologizes at the Knight Foundation on February 12, 2013

Jonah Lehrer recounts his misdeeds and apologizes at the Knight Foundation on February 12, 2013

Mea CulpaNow Lehrer is back in the news for delivering a lecture to the Knight Foundation, accepting a $20,000 honorarium for the event.

Lehrer took the opportunity to repeat his apology, dissect his deplorable behavior in considerable detail, and suggest a way forward for himself. The Knight Foundation website has the video of Lehrer’s remarks as well as a liveblog of what he said.

I thought Lehrer was exceptionally humble and contrite. He accepts that he broke trust with his readers. He details his many failings by name and victim. He admits that he was arrogant and thought that the rules did not apply to him. He agrees that “a confession is not a solution.” He offers some prescriptions for what it will take for him to overcome his deficiencies as a professional.


Many critics were not satisfied by Lehrer’s remarks.

Many were offended by the sum of money he was offered.  It seems many critics want Lehrer to remain silent in silent shame.

But I think society is well-served by offenders who are willing to be so publicly accountable for their misdeeds.  After his remarks, Lehrer was willing to take questions, and some questions were very personal and pointed. He handled them with grace and humility.

Live Twitter Stream

The Knight Foundation also projected the live Twitter stream as Lehrer was talking and taking Q&A. Talk about vicious.

During the Q&A, one member of the audience asked Lehrer to weigh in on the Lance Armstrong apology.  Lehrer wisely declined, answering that it was all he could do to focus on his own misdeeds and apology. He would not judge anyone else. Good for him. It’s a rare offender who can resist the invitation to share the blame.

The attendees heard first-hand from a very smart journalist about the traps laying out there for all professionals. I think that after Lehrer’s remarks any thoughtful attendee should conclude that none of them are different from Jonah Lehrer. That’s their best defense against falling into the trap. If so, the Knight Foundation got its money’s worth.

Maureen O'Conner splits herself into two personalities to evade responsibility for gambling spree.

Maureen O’Conner splits herself into two personalities to evade responsibility for gambling spree.

Maureen O’Connor, San Diego’s first female mayor, recently acknowledged in federal court that she stole $2.1 million from her late husband’s charitable foundation during a decade-long gambling spree.

At a news conference, she said blamed her behavior on a brain tumor that was diagnosed in 2011.

“There are two Maureens — Maureen Number 1 and Maureen Number 2,” said O’Connor. “Maureen Number 2 is the Maureen who did not know she had a tumor growing in her brain.”

Fractured Apology

O’Connor was appealing to what I call the Devil-Made-Me-Do-It Apology. There are many variations of this defense:

 Attempt at Apology: I’m sorry. I say stupid things when I’m drunk, but I don’t mean any of it. It was the beer talking. I don’t know what got into me.

Translation: It wasn’t really me that insulted your mother. It was someone I barely recognize who deserves the blame.

To recognize this kind of apology, look for mention of an addictive substance, medical condition, or supernatural force. On the most superficial level it’s an attempt to blame the offense on the addiction. The booze . . . it was the booze talking, as if the responsibility lies with the substance.

Evade Responsibility

On a deeper level, this attempt to evade responsibility represents nothing less than an attempt to split the offender into two parts.

First there is a blameworthy part that gets to absorb all of the responsibility. Then there’s a blameless part that disassociates itself from the derelict behavior. It is with this blameless part that the apologizer identifies.

The goal in this fractured agency apology is to suggest that the apologizer, speaking on behalf of the “good” self, did not actually commit the harm. The new honorable self has left the old rebellious self behind to take the blame.

These types of apologies are never satisfactory to the victim because the offender is seen to be deflecting responsibility unto a party that is not able to take part in the conversation.


Magic Mike is a 2012 comedy directed by Steven Soderbergh, and starring Matthew McConaughey, and Channing Tatum.  The plot revolves around a male strip club owned by Dallas (McConaughey) and the characters that strip for him.  Adam (Alex Pettyfer) is a lost nineteen-year-old who enters the world of male stripping, guided by Mike Lane (Tatum), who has been in the business for six years.

Male strippers are featured in "Magic Mike."

Male strippers are featured in “Magic Mike.”

There’s a good apology scene toward the end of the movie.


The Mike Lane character falls in love with Adam’s protective older sister Brooke (Cody Horn). He had promised to take care of Adam and had failed. As he flails around for what to say,Mike comes up with these words:

I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I fucked it up. I didn’t mean to do that. I promised you I would take care of him and I didn’t, and I’m sorry about that.  

The apology is short and direct.

It’s rare for a cinematic apology (especially from a leading man) to be so specific about the offense being apologized for.

It’s also rare for a Hollywood apology from a hero to refrain from offering an extended rationalization or explanation. Notice the absence of a “but” statement, e.g., “I promised you I would take care of him, but things got really messed up . . .” The “I didn’t mean to do that line” is a small demerit on an otherwise sound apology.

I recommend the movie. The strip tease scenes are in good taste and a lot of fun.