Elizabeth East

The art of the non-apology

The art of the non-apology
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'Johnson apologises for lockdown garden party' announced the Times on Wednesday. But did he? It’s quite a skill, the non-apology, and our Prime Minister is a non-apologiser par excellence, the Nureyev of not really meaning it.

Academics working in conflict resolution have analysed what makes a good apology and come up with six elements: expressing regret, explaining what went wrong, acknowledging responsibility, declaring repentance, offering repair and requesting forgiveness. In response, I offer you here six ways to make sure your apology is as empty of content as a wine bottle after a Downing Street garden party:

Make it conditional

Or what the comedian Harry Shearer calls an 'Ifpology' (as in I’m sorry if…). Famously used by Justin Timberlake’s agent following the 2004 Superbowl ('I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance' he said, of Timberlake’s apparently accidental exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast during the halftime show). Very much an entry-level non-apology and one wisely avoided by Boris.

Be unclear what you’re apologising for

'I’m sorry that my behaviour has upset people' said Priti Patel after an internal inquiry found that she had bullied Home Office staff. Rather a basic non-apology, Priti was apparently sorry that people were upset rather than for anything she herself had said or done.

Boris handled this one rather better. 'I believed implicitly that this was a work event.' It's much less damning to confess to an error than to a deliberate breaking of the rules.

'If I have a fault, it’s that I’m too nice…'

Strictly speaking, this is a sub-category of 'Be unclear what you’re apologising for' but with an added element of self-regard. 'With hindsight I should have sent everyone back inside. I should have found some other way to thank them.' But then you would have been an utter fun-sponge, Prime Minister, and an ungrateful one to boot. Give yourself a pat on the back.

Mistakes were made

The good old passive voice, decried by George Orwell, beloved of non-apologisers everywhere, from Ronald Reagan ('We did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so', as he said of the arms-for-hostages scandal) to Ronald McDonald ('Mistakes were made in communicating to the public and customers about the ingredients in our French fries and hash browns' as McDonalds announced, after failing to inform customers that the 'natural flavourings' used in its potato products contained beef). This particular formulation has so entered the culture that political commentator Bill Schneider has christened it the 'past-exonerative'.

In 2013, psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson published Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts, arguing that the tendency to distance oneself from one’s mistakes stems from the need to reduce cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable feeling that comes from holding two beliefs or ideas which are psychologically inconsistent (such as the idea that you work for an organisation with the highest standards of customer care and the idea that you’ve failed to inform your Hindu and other vegetarian customers that your fries are practically mooing in their cartons).

Johnson, of course, is too much of a pro to make use of a phrase that’s become a byword for unaccountability. Instead, he told us that 'I have learned enough to know there were things we simply did not get right and I must take responsibility'. This is decent of a man purporting to apologise for personally attending a party in his own garden.

The magic words

'I apologise'. The seasoned non-apologiser knows these words are best left unsaid. 'Apologise' is the sort of verb that linguists classify as performatives – those verbs which are carried out simply by saying them; 'I promise', 'I name this ship the Mary Rose', 'I quit!' (said as you throw your Monopoly piece across the board in frustration) – in each case, to say it is to do it. What did Boris say about the Downing Street party? 'I’d like to apologise.' I’d like to win the women’s heptathlon at the 2024 Olympics but that doesn’t mean I’m going to do it. Subtle.

Was there actually anything to apologise for anyway?

Well, was there? There must have been, because otherwise what are we all doing here?

'I should have recognised that even if it could be said technically to fall within the guidance, there are millions and millions of people who simply would not see it that way, people who have suffered terribly, people who were forbidden from meeting loved ones at all inside or outside, and to them and to this house I offer my heartfelt apologies.'

Johnson here appears to be apologising not for attending a party (after all, perhaps that could be 'said technically to fall within the guidance'), but rather for the fact that millions of people have somehow not seen it that way. As an approach, this ranks alongside: 'Even if my trying to sleep with your sister isn’t technically breach of my marriage vows, I understand that you simply don’t see it that way', in that it would take a courageous man to try it.