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Do Apologies Matter?

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Within 24 hours recently, two public figures had outbursts that created strong tremors. When Serena Williams threatened a line referee at the U.S. Open and Kanye West stole the microphone from Taylor Swift at MTV's Video Music Awards, people were left with very bitter tastes in their mouths. Ms. Williams had never displayed such a strong reaction to a call, and while Mr. West is known for his antics, his behavior towards Ms. Swift was exceptionally absurd. America could clearly see what was wrong in both of these situations, but Ms. Williams and Mr. West could not, waiting several days before offering apologies. Once both parties made their apologies, people were still unsatisfied and thought neither party had been sincere.

When public figures misstep, Formal apology people want to see emotion and awareness about the situation, which rarely come across in public apologies. With the 24-hour news cycle, bloggers, and commenters, society is at a point where apologies do not matter anymore. There is always someone to judge and offer boisterous opinions long after the matter at hand.

What Ms. Williams did is part of any game. One only has to go to YouTube to see a vast collection of John McEnroe's outbursts and expletive-laden remarks to umpires. Look at baseball: when managers verbally attack umpires' faces or when players leave the dugout for a pitcher's mound brawl, fines are issued, players are suspended, but rare is the apology. Sports are full of aggression towards officials, we just don't see it frequently in tennis. While Ms. Williams' actions may not have been right, the thought behind them was, as she had been robbed by an incredibly rare call on match point.

Ms. Williams did what a lot of other athletes would do: express anger. While she avoided the subject with reporters, more and more people clamored for an apology and received a publicist-spun response. Hearing from a public figure who seems to have no comprehension about his or her actions is a greater insult to fans than no apology at all. Mr. McEnroe made a career of his bad-boy behavior and continues to live off his notoriety with appearances on 30 Rock and in Nike campaigns. Until a person can reflect upon the issue at hand and understand his or her faults, there is no need for an apology because it is only words at that point, with no true sense of remorse. At times, then, it is sometimes better to do nothing at all, except pay your fine and call up Tina Fey.

Mr. West's outburst deserves the same type of approach. After the VMAs, he posted an apology on his blog, which, in his typical fashion, was in all caps, continuing his ranting behavior and offering little consolation. It wasn't until Mr. West went on the Jay Leno Show Monday evening, a day after the incident with Taylor Swift, that he looked even somewhat remorseful for his inappropriate actions. By Tuesday evening, he spoke with Ms. Swift and offered, in her words, "a sincere apology."

There are two celebrities here with reputations on the line. Mr. West's reputation is on the line because he took away an important moment from an innocent girl who had caused him no harm and harbored no ill will. Ms. Williams' reputation is on the line because or her rare on-court outburst. Ms. Williams offered a manufactured apology, and Mr. West was able to recover somewhat from his errors and offer Ms. Swift a heartfelt apology. It probably helped him as well to know that President Obama considered him a jackass.

People in the spotlight have a lot at stake: fans, sponsors, business relationships, and reputation. For Ms. Williams, the $10,500 fine is pennies; and if tennis never ousted Mr. McEnroe, Ms. Williams certainly will be back with more for her colorful highlight reel. As for Mr. West, the longer he delayed his apology, the more he could have lost, but he was able to partially redeem himself, at least until his next improvisational performance.

What can we learn from all this? Is it better to keep our mouths shut and mull over our questionable actions, or is it better to offer a quickly spun apology that addresses all parties? It seems that if the spotlight is on you, it's better to let the light shine, reemerge with actually valid sentiments, and expect people to still dislike you.

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About Kate Brandli

  • Excellent post! You’re right – apologizing for the sake of apologizing and making people happy doesn’t make much sense.

  • I love your post and concur on all points. A sincere apology or none at all. I think integrity is the key.