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Quartz Posts Commentary On Saying “I’m Sorry’

August 20, 2016

This is just a nice read.

This has been a week for saying sorry. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte apologized for being less than candid about being allegedly robbed in Rio. Donald Trump apologized, through gritted teeth, for sometimes saying “the wrong thing.” The Clinton Foundation apologized, sort-of, for receiving foreign donations from sometimes questionable sources. And the US State Department said, well, it wasn’t really a ransom, but, um, yes, we did withhold that $400 million for Iran until we got our hostages back.

But is public contrition a good sign? Not necessarily. As the Harvard Business Review noted in 2006, “leaders will publicly apologize if and when they calculate the costs of doing so to be lower than the costs of not doing so.” Japan’s famously elaborate corporate apologies are, as Bloomberg’s William Pesek wrote last year, “more about distraction than accountability,” a kabuki performance in which all those solemnly bowing executives “feign taking responsibility for crises, before returning to business as usual.”

So if there are more apologies, it’s probably not that people are being more honest about their failings, but simply that the cost of apologizing is going down. Tech startup mantras like “move fast and break things” or “fail fast, fail often” have permeated the broader culture. Failure is celebrated as a sign of strength. The cost of lying and being caught out or even publicly shamed is also plummeting, as both US presidential hopefuls and British Brexiteers have been learning to their delight.

This year happens to be the 40th anniversary of Elton John’s “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” In the public sphere, at least, it’s on the way to becoming the easiest.

Janet Guyon and Gideon Lichfield

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