Was Florence Pugh sorry enough? Credit: LOIC VENANCE/AFP/ Getty

January 12, 2023   6 mins

Everyday life is full of unwitting moral pitfalls. Overnight, formerly benign words can take on strange and harmful new meanings. It is easy to be blindsided by the rapidly changing public fortunes of activities you’ve always enjoyed — using gas stoves, for instance, or staring at people on the Tube. According to a new book, the next time we fall foul of the morality police we should add yet another item to the list of things to worry about: the likelihood that any apology we stammer out won’t be good enough. Muttering “mistakes were made” plus something about having been very drunk at the time is no longer going to cut it.

For several years, Americans Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy have been running a website, Sorrywatch, in which they rate public apologies for their effectiveness. Now they have expanded their purported wisdom into a very long book: Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case For Good Apologies. As I started reading, I was already vaguely aware of what pop culture would insist makes a good apology. You should claim responsibility for your action; avoid vague and weaselly phrases; show some understanding of the effect of what you did; don’t make excuses; and so on. Such therapeutic banalities have been knocking round the internet for decades, beloved of psychology blogs and adolescent girls looking for new ways to criticise each other on Tumblr. Essentially, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry reiterates this sort of received wisdom at great length, embellishing it with cherry-picked social science and a lot of heavy-handed irony and whimsy.

The book issues highly specific rules about when and how to say sorry. For instance, you shouldn’t use the words “Obviously”, “Regrettable”, “Already”, “Dialogue”, “Alleged”, “Positivity”, “Jesus”, “Journey”, “Self-discovery”, “If”, “But”, “Context” or “Unfortunate”. There are also rules about how and when to forgive someone who is saying sorry to you. Various celebrity apologies are scrutinised for flaws, including attempts by actress Florence Pugh to apologise for cultural appropriation (quite good, the authors pronounce); and by David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz for his serial-killing spree in the summer of 1977 (not good enough, apparently).

The background moral framework here is the standard-issue US bourgeois liberal one: transwomen are women, men are dogs, white people don’t listen hard enough. The book reads as if written by a pair of loquacious hippy aunts, tipsily cornering their nephew at a wedding to give him a lecture on life skills. There is a lot of spry perkiness. Acerbic asides disrupt the flow of almost every paragraph: “Yes, if we hold ourselves to a standard of utter crystalline perfection, we’ll always fail, even if we’re actually kind of superb. (Which we are! And we bet you are too!)” At one point, philosopher J.L. Austin’s concept of performative utterance is shortened to “perf uttos” because, as the authors put it, “we’re jaunty like that”.

As these examples perhaps suggest, the writing gets a bit wearing after a while. The authors tend to use an ex cathedra “we” — “We at SorryWatch believe in education and redemption” — except when they use the third person to pick out one of them in particular for a relatable anecdote (“Those of us who do struggle with depression, anxiety, and guilt — Marjorie raises her hand to you, reader, in a cheery, antidepressant-fuelled wave! …”).  They also spend a lot of time inventing bad apologies, some of which are so bizarrely specific and dream-like in quality that they beg for psychoanalysis. For instance:

“Consider all the ways you may have caused offence. If you grab someone’s Japanese naval officer’s sabre to open a stubborn jar of pickles and snap the tip off, well. You broke their expensive sabre. You also showed contempt for their collection. Maybe they care that you demonstrated disrespect for the Japanese Navy, maybe they don’t. But you need to take these matters into account when apologising. Simply offering to share the pickles may not be enough.”

As I waded through the book, feeling increasingly unforgiving about the prose style, I began to ask myself what the real rules of a good apology are. There seems to me to be only one: you should feel genuine remorse, and that should be your primary motive for saying you’re sorry. Whatever else an apology is, it at least should be a sincere communication between you and the person you wronged, offered because you regret what you did and wish to acknowledge your remorse to the person concerned. Weirdly though, recognition of this basic rule renders most of the argument in Sorry, Sorry, Sorry beside the point, and may even undermine the project of the book as a whole.

For one thing, Ingall and McCarthy seem to want to motivate the reader to make apologies for reasons that apparently have little to do with remorse. They tell us that apologising makes you feel good. It is beneficial for your health. It helps in “trust-building processes”. It stops people suing you. (Forgiving is talked up in similar terms: “One 2014 review of 54 studies of ‘forgiveness intervention’ found that such interventions help people increase their feelings of hopefulness and decrease their feelings of anxiety, depression, and anger”.)  Yet to go through the rituals of apologising, motivated only by the thought of some separate personal or social good that might come out of the process, is surely to undermine the grounds of the action. You’re supposed to do it because you feel sorry, not because you have your eye on some other benefit.

That the book’s authors don’t really understand this is betrayed by the fact they seem to think there’s no big difference between interpersonal and corporate apologies. They write: “The rules are the same for institutions as for individuals: Say you’re sorry, name the thing you did, show you understand its impact, don’t make excuses or blame others, make things right to the degree possible, make reparations to the degree possible.” But corporations don’t feel remorse. And obviously, an apology launched into the public domain by a company for the benefit of onlookers is purely transactional, and primarily aimed at reputation-saving rather than the honest expression of a regretful state of mind. The only reasons the “rules” for corporate apologies look superficially the same as for interpersonal ones is because a simulacrum of remorse is being attempted, which depends on trying to grasp what a sincere apology would look like in the paradigm case, and mimicking that. When CEOs offer desperately contrite monologues to camera (for instance, here’s the boss of Domino’s Pizza, apologising for a video of his employees going viral in which they put cheese up their nose and farted on the salami), it’s authentic fear of shareholders you can hear in their voices, and not much else.

Once it’s recognised that an apology should be genuinely remorseful, a further difference with the central claim of Sorry, Sorry, Sorry swiftly emerges, concerning whether the words of an apology must fit a certain linguistic form or else be judged deficient. Ingall and McCarthy certainly think so, and spend most of the book describing various dos and don’ts. They insist that good apologies never contain phrases such as “sorry if…” or “sorry but…”; should be in an active not passive voice; should always include an explanation of why whatever it was won’t happen again; should not “centre” the offender too dramatically; and so on.

But requiring strict forms of words on pain of failure seem to me to profoundly misunderstand the nature of an apologetic act of communication. If the main point is to express something meaningful and intensely personal to another human being, then ticking off a checklist of phrases you read in a book in the right order is likely to be a hindrance rather than a help. And in real life, how one speaker expresses remorse can differ wildly from another, depending on interaction with their respective background characters and personality traits — yet both can be equally meaningful. A mumbled and grudging “sorry if you feel hurt”, uttered by someone intensely proud who finds it overwhelmingly humiliating to face and admit his own flaws, should be worth just as much to the perceptive listener as a robotic parroting of approved phrases. More, even. “Bad” apologies reveal the deep humanity of a person — and in forgiveness, being put in touch with the offender’s humanity is precisely what matters, isn’t it?

But perhaps this book’s biggest flaw is its failure to appreciate that genuine regret can’t be compelled. If your goal is to allow for spontaneous feelings of remorse to be generated, then exerting heavy social pressure to apologise is counterproductive. After all, it’s supposed to be their moral compass doing the navigating, not yours.

Of course, if the goal of demanding an apology from someone is rather to humiliate them, or to take revenge, or to wield power for the purposes of social control, such pressure may work very well. This was amply illustrated during the bloodletting of the #MeToo moment, when various public apologies were dragged out of humiliated men, only to be automatically judged by their accusers as wholly inadequate anyway. Some of those apologies turned out to be for things that hadn’t even happened. Even at the time, though, nobody seriously thought every apology being offered was sincere. Sincerity was not the point of this particular ritual, and nor was forgiveness.

Though Sorry, Sorry, Sorry gives an occasional nod to the idea that remorse can’t be forced, I don’t really think the authors mean it. For along with the associated website, the whole book can be understood as an extended attempt to cajole, pressurise, and mock the reader into giving apologies she otherwise might not make, in words she otherwise might not use.  Considered as a way of keeping intimidated readers compliantly in line with contemporary social mores, the entire project may very well be considered a success. But in terms of increasing interpersonal understanding and forgiveness in today’s pitiless moral climate, it seems to me to do precisely the opposite.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.