Can we master the art of apologising in an 'Age of Apologies'?

Sorry may not be the hardest word to say these days, but apologising is still a tricky undertaking. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison knows this better than anyone, having been criticised on three separate occasions in the past fortnight over something to do with an apology.

Two weeks ago, the PM was criticised when he spoke to journalists after attending an i4Give Sunday service – an event run by Danny and Leila Abdallah encouraging Australians to forgive one another, even as they commemorated the tragic deaths of their three children.

Journalists asked the PM about a leaked text message in which Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals Leader Barnaby Joyce referred to him as a “hypocrite” and a “liar”.

“Politicians are no different to anyone else. People say things and people feel things. People get angry… That’s all of us. And so, who am I to be judging someone else?” Morrison said. “If you can’t accept and understand each other’s frailties and be forgiving in those circumstances, then, frankly, that says a lot more about you than it does about others.”

A generous person could argue that the Prime Minister was applying the sermon he had just heard to his own life – something Christians generally try to do. But some considered his remarks to be political opportunism. He may have been on topic, but this was the wrong time to address an issue that had become a political problem for the PM, they said.

Last week, Morrison delivered an acknowledgement and apology on behalf of the Australian government to workers in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces who had experienced workplace bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

The apology was a key recommendation of the ‘Jenkins review’, an Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces undertaken by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins which was tabled in November last year. It was arguably also delivered by the right people – House Speaker Andrew Wallace, followed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, Greens leader Adam Bandt, and Independent Zali Steggall.

The occasion was not marked by the same level of ceremony and effort displayed in previous apologies by Australian PMs like Julia Gillard’s National Apology for Forced Adoption Policies and Practices and Kevin Rudd’s National Apology to the Stolen Generations­. Yet neither did it fall into the common traps many public apologies do, such as minimising the offence or deflecting blame.

But when Brittany Higgins, a survivor of rape in a Parliament House office, now a spokesperson for victims, addressed the National Press Club the following day, her response to the apology her courage and advocacy had prompted was lukewarm.

“I earnestly thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for their statements of acknowledgement and apologies offered yesterday to victims of abuse in our national parliament,” Higgins said.

“It was encouraging and an important sentiment, but I’m cognisant that at this point in time, they are still only words. Actions are what matter and what will be the true test of whether the government is committed to creating systemic change.”

“Task forces are great, codes of conduct are great, but only if it’s paired with institutional change” – Brittany Higgins

Even though the right people had delivered the apology at the right time and place, it appeared not to resonate with Higgins because it had not yet been accompanied by the decisive action she was looking to see.

“Task forces are great, codes of conduct are great, but only if it’s paired with institutional change,” she told the room of journalists.

“There are 28 recommendations in the Jenkins review and without their implementation, we will continue to see this toxic culture exist within our most powerful institution – the cornerstone of which is the Office of Parliamentary, Staffing and Culture; legislative reform to the MOPS Act [Members of Parliament (Staff) Act] and an independent complaints mechanism for the entirety of parliament house.”

On Monday this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison marked the 14th anniversary of the Australian Government’s National Apology to the Stolen Generations with a speech in parliament that reiterated the national apology and – unexpectedly – emphasised forgiveness.

“Forgiveness is never earned or deserved,” the PM said. “Forgiveness transcends all of that. It’s an act of grace. It’s an act of courage. And it is a gift that only those who have been wounded, damaged and destroyed can offer. I also said 14 years ago,  ‘sorry is not the hardest word to say; the hardest is I forgive you’.”

While the PM did attempt to qualify his thoughts by saying, “forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Nor does it mean that there are not consequences for actions, and the need for redress and restitution”, the backlash to his comments was swift and brutal.

“You can’t make traumatised people play by parlour game rules” – Professor Marcia Langton

“If people have been severely traumatised, it is very damaging to them to be told how to behave. You can’t make traumatised people play by parlour game rules,” Professor Marcia Langton told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

“With all due respect to the Prime Minister and his Christian belief in forgiveness, and knowing about these cases as I do from working as the assistant commissioner in the NT, I’d have to say that one must be very respectful of the victims and their capacity to navigate their way through very severe intergenerational trauma.”

Apologies and forgiveness – what the research shows

Given the PM’s recent experiences with apologies, some may wonder whether delivering public apologies is a worthwhile pursuit for a politician at all. And perhaps the same concerns might be felt by corporate, community and church leaders. If public apologies don’t help parties reconcile, is there any point in making one?

Thankfully, there is a vast universe of academic work on apologies and forgiveness that researchers over many years have done.

The range of articles summarising this research is a veritable treasure trove. ‘When apologies work: How matching apology components to victims’ self-construals facilitates forgiveness’, ‘The varying meanings of forgiveness: Relationship closeness moderates how forgiveness affects feelings of justice’, and ‘Turning tables: offenders feel like “victims” when victims withhold forgiveness’ are just a few that caught this author’s eye.

So what can we learn? The first thing to note is that we live in what researchers and writers have called “an age of apology” – and it has consequences for all of us.

“Age of apology” is a term coined by US law professor Roy L. Brooks in 1999 to describe the sharp rise in public apologies from governments, institutions, organisations and celebrities.

Taking their lead from Brooks, researchers Tyler G. Okimoto, Michael Wenzel and Matthew J. Hornsey have examined the effects of this increase, asking, “What does this surge in frequency mean for the effectiveness of intergroup apologies in promoting forgiveness?”

They argued the increase in public intergroup (i.e. between two groups) apologies had created a norm. And because people adopt behavioural norms when deciding what action they should take, this results in even more public intergroup apologies.

But, the research team writes, “there is also an ironic downside” to all this.

“As a more expected everyday occurrence, an apology may also be less likely to elicit feelings of intergroup forgiveness because it is seen as a less sincere communication of offender group remorse.”

To test this, they conducted an experiment. Researchers first primed one of two groups to think about the “age of apology”. They then took both groups through a study of an intergroup offence and an official apology, consisting of various articles, photographs, interviews and documents.

Researchers found that participants primed with an “age of apology” conversation before they studied the intergroup offence had a greater desire to see the offender group issue an apology.

However, the same group were less likely to perceive the apology as sincere and, therefore, less likely to forgive offenders. The norm of apologising had made them want an apology more but it had also diluted its effect.

Sincerity is critical – and it takes all of us

It seems obvious – at least to a Christian – to note that sincerity is the most crucial feature in any apology. As Christians, we are used to teaching that urges us to check our hearts’ motives and be honest.

But most of us would also admit that sincerity is not a feature of all public apologies. We know that apologies are often delivered for political reasons, because they are part of a public relations strategy to minimise institutional damage, or to satisfy stakeholders’ expectations. Sincerity is not a given.

When an apology is not regarded as sincere by its recipient, it does not lead to forgiveness and reconciliation. Yet, when an apology is perceived to be sincere, it has great power and can return power and status to victims, redeem victims’ appraisals of offenders’ moral character, increase forgiveness, and make way for reconciliation.

So what can we do, if we are sincere in our heart, to help our sincerity resonate with those we apologise to?

Researchers have identified some characteristics that can help convey sincerity in an apology.

For example, if the apology is interpersonal, it is better to say more rather than less. That means, rather than just apologising and accepting responsibility, it helps to be explicit about what you got wrong and to express recommitment to the value you violated.

It also helps to show certain emotions consistently, rather than tucking them away. One study found that expressing shame when offering compensation reduced their feelings of insult. Another found expressing guilt and shame increased the likelihood of sincerity being perceived while expressing pity did the opposite (both are discussed in the research below).

Taking action is another way to show your apology is sincere.

Again, this may seem obvious to Christians, who are familiar with the Bible’s teachings that command believers to love “not just with words or tongue, but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3.18). Yet, research reinforces scripture’s wisdom. One study showed when action is absent, change seems unlikely, or nothing changes over time, giving an apology can cause a person to fall even further in the esteem of others who view the apology as empty and or/manipulative.

Communicating sincerity in an intergroup apology has an added layer of complexity.

“Sincerity takes on a particular meaning in intergroup contexts, as collective apologies are a measure of the sentiments, true feelings, and benevolent intentions not so much of the individuals expressing their apology but rather the group they represent,” write researchers Michael Wenzel, Tyler G. Okimoto, Matthew J. Hornsey, Ellie Lawrence-Wood, and Anne-Marie Coughlin.

They found victim group members find collective apologies less sincere and are less forgiving when they believe the decision to apologise has been made by either one group member or a minority of the group’s members. Instead, a group evaluates sincerity based on their general perception of the whole offender group.

So, while leaders and spokespeople carry a more significant role in expressing a sincere apology, everyone in the offender group plays a part.

“In an age where they are increasingly expected yet decreasingly appreciated, collective apologies face an uphill battle to convince audiences of their sincerity,” the researchers wrote. “Well-chosen words, heartfelt emotions, and consequent deeds may only go so far if they are not seen to represent what the wider offender group thinks, feels, or does.”

Yet they were hopeful apologies could still be used powerfully to bring about reconciliation if offenders were willing to take up the challenge of mastering the art of apologising.

“Of course, leaving the emergence of apologetic sentiments to the whims of public opinion may do little to advance a process of conciliation. True leaders must endeavour to shape the group’s views and engage democratic participation in policy formation, to make sure that an apology represents the group’s will and sentiment,” they concluded.

For us Christians, who are tasked with the larger ministry of reconciliation and represent the Prince of Peace in this age of apologies, I suggest it is a challenge we should rise to meet.