How to say sorry: the one word you must never use

So. Maria Miller’s apology to the House of Commons. As the UK press have repeatedly reminded us, it was just thirty-two seconds long. But its perfunctory nature wasn’t the only reason it bombed.

Here’s the text of the thing:

“The committee has recommended that I apologise to the House for my attitude to the commissioner’s inquiries, and I of course unreservedly apologise.

“I fully accept the recommendations of the committee and thank them for bringing this matter to an end.”

The reason the Opposition, the press and Miller’s constituents weren’t buying any of it wasn’t because the apology was so short. It’s because she never actually, er, said “sorry”. Not even for her attitude at the inquiries, let alone for the teeny-tiny confusion with the expenses.

So here’s a tip if you ever need to say sorry: never, ever use the words “I apologise” (and, no, modifying it with the adverb “unreservedly” doesn’t change that rule).

Just say “I’m sorry”. Don’t distance yourself from the apology itself by bringing your audience’s attention to the act of apologising. Because people can sense, like they did with Miller, that you’re acting under duress.

Oh, and isn’t there just a hint of self-pity in that bit about the matter coming to the end? Reminds me a little of BP’s Tony “I want my life back” Hayward. Hayward did get his life back, and the matter of Miller’s Cabinet career was, indeed, brought to an end.

So here’s another tip. Remember: an apology’s about the other person, not you. If you’ve screwed up, nobody wants to hear about your pain.

Now read an example of an apology that totally rocks. See also the great example of a pre-emptive apology in Simon Jones’s comment on this post.

Non-UK readers can get the full background on the Maria Miller story here, where you’ll also find a video of the apology.

2 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Susan says:

    Does the word apologize denote insincerity? No.

    Yes, we use both. One to assume responsibility; one to empathize.

    (a) “I apologize for [name it]” is a statement that assumes personal responsibility.
    (b) “I am sorry for [name it] illustrates empathy.

    (1) I am sorry for your loss. [not responsible for the actual loss]
    (2) I apologize for being late and inconveniencing you. [taking responsibility and owning the impact]
    (3) I apologize for being late and I am sorry that I inconvenienced you. [even clearer, taking responsibility and recognizing the impact on others]

    We know sincerity. “HR said I should apologize … ” We can guess that the apology is forced and insincere. But on the other hand, “I am sorry that you felt what I said insulted you,” is also interpreted as insincere (because they did not apologize for their action).

    So with the example in the article, yes, we gauge it as insincere. It was defensive and overly formal. It may have been delivered with long suffering sighs. The word apologize was formal and fit the formal announcement.

  2. Helen says:

    I thought the banned word would be ‘recommended’. Using it twice reinforces the idea that she is only apologising because she has been told to, and that she still doesn’t believe she’s done anything wrong.

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