My Turn: How to Apologize Like a Celebrity

How not to say you are sorry.

By Chris Witt


Professional athletes, late-night talk show hosts, financial gurus, corporate and theme park executives, celebrities and – surprise, surprise – politicians are once again in the news for acting badly. And they’re offering apologies.

Even with the best of intentions we all, at times, do or say things that fall short of our own standards and that hurt other people’s feelings. So learning how to apologize is an essential life skill. Your club might want to devote an entire meeting or, at least a Table Topics session, to exploring the right way to say “I’m sorry.”

As a starting point for your discussions, consider the many ways it can be done badly, and you’ll soon understand the basics – what not to say. Here is a list – based on a few recent public examples – of the five most common ways celebrities apologize: 


Blame the Other Person
Start by saying how sorry you are. Then shift the focus from your actions to the other person’s reactions: “I’m sorry that you were offended by what I did or said.” Make it sound as if the other person’s thin-skinned sensibilities, outdated notions of fairness and decency, or failure to understand what you really meant – not your misdeeds – are the real culprits.

This common ploy lets you sound like you’re apologizing without requiring you to express culpability or regret. If you’re clever enough, you may even get people to apologize to you. “I’m sorry,” they might say. “Maybe I was being overly sensitive.” 


Offer an Excuse
If you can’t blame someone else, you can always blame extenuating circumstances.

In Southern California, where I live, it’s common to blame an array of problems – arriving late, standing someone up, being generally rude – on traffic. But no matter where you live, you can point the finger at any number of situations beyond your control: the weather, the economy, the fickleness of computers, the sorry state of the world we live in or the stress of having too much to do.

If, for example, someone criticizes you for missing a deadline, say with a put-upon sigh, “My computer crashed – must have been a virus – and it took the guys in IT forever to fix it.” Not only have you shifted people’s attention away from your failure to something you can’t possibly be held accountable for, you’ve also made yourself the victim. 


Use the Passive Voice
Toastmasters’ Competent Communication manual advocates using clear and powerful English. To accomplish this, you should avoid the passive voice. But the passive voice is key to apologizing like a celebrity. Say, “Mistakes were made,” not “I made a mistake.” Say, “There was an error of judgment,” not “I was wrong.” Say, “Regrettably, things turned out not at all as were anticipated,” not “I regret having done things that caused so much trouble and hard feelings.” 


Delay as Long as Possible
You may feel inclined – decent people often do – to offer an apology the moment you realize you’ve done something wrong. Avoid the urge. Avoid saying anything at all. Wait and see how things play out. Maybe people will forget about what you did, or maybe someone else will do something even worse. Then you’re off the hook.

If people keep bringing up your misconduct, you can sigh as if to suggest it’s rude of them to harp on something that happened so long ago. Offer a quasi-apology – “I’m sure we’re all sorry that things turned out the way they did” – and suggest that there are more important issues at hand and shouldn’t we be getting on with things. 


Hide Your Feelings
If you feel remorse, regret or even guilt because of what you’ve done – people with a conscience often do – make sure no one knows it.

Make an apology the way sincere people do. Tell people you’re sorry. Accept responsibility. Offer to make amends. Ask for understanding and forgiveness. But, like some celebrities, make it sound as if you don’t believe a word you’re saying. If possible, read from a script. Speak in a monotone. Avoid eye contact. And never reveal a heartfelt emotion.

If you follow these five simple guidelines, people may complain that you haven’t apologized at all. They may even feel more offended than before. But hey, what’ more important? Maintaining your influence, fame and financial standing – as celebrities do – or making things right?

Now that you’ve seen how celebrities do it, your club will surely discover some more appropriate words and actions. Try it in Table Topics. You may not win an Oscar for your performance, but you’ll receive something far more important: Forgiveness.


Chris Witt, author of Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint, is an executive speech coach based in San Diego. You can reach him at chris@wittcom.com or read his blog at www.lifeafterpowerpoint.com.

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