Sorry not sorry: Will Smith and the art of the ‘fauxpology’

It isn’t easy to ask for forgiveness. We speak to experts in linguistics and psychology about false apologies

A tearful Will Smith accepts his Best Actor award at the 2022 Oscars. During his speech he made several apologies, but not to Chris Rock.
A tearful Will Smith accepts his Best Actor award at the 2022 Oscars. During his speech he made several apologies, but not to Chris Rock.CONTACTOPHOTO (Europa Press)

The apology has become its own genre within the life cycle of celebrity foibles. First comes the error, be it a slap in the middle of the most famous film awards in the world, or an unfortunate aside in an interview that inspires a viral tweet. Then the public expresses their growing indignation via social media. And finally appears the sober announcement of an apology, directed toward an abstract group of people who, in all likelihood, have already turned their attention to the gaffe of another public figure.

Like any genre, those celebrity apologies also have subgenres – which is where we find the “fauxpology.” The phenomenon is so common that it has its own Wikipedia page. It is defined as a declaration that masquerades as an apology, while lacking remorse and excising the behavior by pointing fingers. Kim Kardashian, for example, made her own fauxpology for the now-viral advice she gave female entrepreneurs in an interview in Variety – “Get your fucking ass up and work. It seems like nobody wants to work these days.” She insisted that the declaration was “a soundbite really with no context,” saying that she was “sorry” for how it was “received.” Will Smith, in his acceptance speech for the Oscar for Best Actor, apologized to the Academy and to his fellow nominees after slapping comedian Chris Rock, later excusing himself with platitudes such as “life imitates art” and “love makes you do crazy things.” And those examples come just from this week.

Famous people often act as a mirror for the rest of society to mock their own weaknesses. Celebrities are just like us, and fauxpologies occur off the red carpet, too.

“Fauxpologies are a way to evade the responsibility of having done something bad,” Dr Victoria Escandell Vidal, a linguistics lecturer at the Complutense University in Madrid, explains. “Admitting that you’re at fault is traditionally a necessary ingredient in the apology. With these kinds of apologies, however, people express a sentiment, which is usually insincere, but nothing else: they don’t accept their error before others or the consequences that came from it. Fauxpologies even shift the blame to the person receiving the apology for having reacted in the way they did, insinuating that it may have been excessive.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” “I’m sorry it made you angry,” “I’m sorry, but if you hadn’t provoked me” – these are all common examples of false apologies that shift the responsibility for the action to the person affected. They can be a form of manipulation.

“It’s coercion, a subtle way of forcing the other person to behave in a certain way,” says the psychologist Violeta Alcocer, an expert in psychological treatment of victims of gender-based violence at the psychology and psychiatry center Hortaleza 73.

“In our society, we don’t understand well the process of asking for forgiveness. We force children to ask for forgiveness constantly, as if forgiveness were an end in itself, when asking for forgiveness is really asking permission to resolve the conflict,” she continues. “But asking for forgiveness doesn’t oblige the other person to forgive, and in this society we are obliged to forgive against our emotions.” In the process of conflict resolution, according to the psychologist, the person who asks forgiveness has to understand what they have done and why, regret their actions, give an explanation based on reflection and not excuses, and express their will to make up and a plan for doing so. “If there’s none of that, it’s manipulative forgiveness.”

Why is the non-apology formula so common in public figures’ declarations, announcements and feeds? “The contagion of communication patterns through social media is very high,” notes Dr Victoria Escandell Vidal. “But I think there are also legal reasons, and not just trends, behind the proliferation of these false apologies. Accepting responsibility involves feeling guilt and openly recognizing the error, and that, for many public figures, is often inconvenient.”

Psychologist Violera Alcocer agrees. “Since everything goes so quickly, the process of asking for forgiveness is accelerated and becomes false because there is no time to reflect or process, neither for the one asking forgiveness or for the offended party.”

The art of the no-apology

“I’m sorry if anyone was offended” may be the most common of the false apologies. “The conditional statement calls the offense itself into doubt, presenting the effect as a mere speculative possibility, without expressing it as something real,” explains Dr Escandell.

In politics, faux apologies often use the passive voice, as in phrases such as “mistakes have been made” or “solutions are being worked on.” These formulations avoid indicating who is at fault and, therefore, who is responsible. The structure is so common it has been parodied by The Simpsons, after being used by US presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

“Another strategy is erasing the offended person through general or hypothetical expressions,” explains Dr Escandell, giving as an example the phrase: “I apologize to those who may have been offended.” Finally, as Dr Escandell points out, the apology’s point of view is important. It makes the difference between “I’m sorry to have hurt you” and “I’m sorry it hurts you.”

A guide to apologizing correctly

The American psychiatrist Aaron Lazare explains in his book On Apology that for an apology to be effective, it must be honest. It should also contain four essential elements: recognition of the offense; an explanation of what happened (and here, the psychiatrist explains, the most important part is to explain without excusing), an expression of regret and, finally, an offer of compensation, such as promising not to make the same mistake in the future.

Rules

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