In my recent Language Pulsation about the subtle difference between an apology and “saying sorry,” I tried to draw out the idea that “apology” has a connotation of insincerity or defensiveness while “saying sorry” is more genuine and remorseful. Only after I posted the article did I find three examples clearly illustrating my thesis.
1. Geraldo Rivera apologizing for any offense that might have been caused by the “life-saving advice” he dispensed after the murder of Trayvon Martin:
“I apologize to anyone offended by what one prominent black conservative called my ‘very practical and potentially life-saving campaign urging black and Hispanic parents not to let their children go around wearing hoodies.’” (Source)
Salon staffwriter Mary Elizabeth Williams calls this “the non-apology apology,” or the “back-pedaled apology” and she ends with the mandate “Say you’re sorry. And then shut up.”
2. Belvedere Vodka retracting an offensive ad it posted online :
Gwen Sharp, blogger at Sociological Images, calls this response “an apology of the passive ‘sorry if you were offended’ type.”
3. European Commission officials withdrawing a promotional YouTube video after it received many complaints of racist depictions:
The clip was absolutely not intended to be racist and we obviously regret that it has been perceived in this way. We apologise to anyone who may have felt offended. Given these controversies, we have decided to stop the campaign immediately and to withdraw the video.
Lisa Wade at Sociological Images called this “a classic non-apology that privileges intent over impact.”
I am not debating whether or not Geraldo Rivera, or Belvedere Vodka, or the European Union were sincerely sorry or not. It’s the responses of the observers that are interesting. For instance, the Salon piece explicitly juxtaposes “apologizing” and “saying sorry” as two different acts.
In the responses we see that “apologizing” is associated with conditionality (“if that’s true, then I’m sorry (but I don’t think that’s true)”), an unwillingness/failure to accept responsibility and/or a shifting of responsibility to the one offended, passivity, and a privileging of the supposedly good intentions of the actor over the negative impact on those harmed.
“Saying sorry” is associated with genuine remorse, acceptance of responsibility, a proactive plan of action to prevent the wrongdoing from happening again, and reparations–things that the president of Belvedere Vodka eventually did.
If you have any more examples of this phenomenon, share them in the comments.