New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s two apologies for alleged sexual misconduct are straight out of a master class in how not to say you’re sorry.
The governor, who had become something of a celebrity during his nationally broadcast press conferences early in the coronavirus pandemic, is now embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal involving five female accusers. This comes amid the disclosure that Cuomo’s administration intentionally underreported the number of nursing home residents in New York who died of COVID-19.
After first issuing just a statement on Feb. 28 that failed to calm the furor about the sexual harassment allegations, he held a press conference three days later in which he publicly apologized for making potentially offensive comments but denied allegations about inappropriate touching.
As an English language studies professor who has analyzed the language of public apologies, I believe Cuomo’s efforts can provide some value at least: They demonstrate perfectly what you shouldn’t do when you want to show a loved one, a colleague or your constituents that you’re sorry for something you did wrong.
1. Do not deny, obfuscate or minimize wrongdoing
Even as he apologized, Cuomo did his best to leave people with the impression he didn’t do anything wrong.
To his credit, he didn’t deny everything. But he used another common tactic of someone who is only reluctantly apologizing: He conceded to part but not all of the offense by acknowledging potentially inappropriate remarks but denying inappropriate touching. This blurs the nature of the offense and is a classic way public figures apologize when they wish to avoid shouldering full responsibility.
He also reverses the role of perpetrator and victim. Describing his actions as “playful” and “good-natured,” Cuomo alludes to his own “hurt” and said that his words were “misinterpreted,” thereby assigning some culpability to his accusers for their oversensitivity.
Finally, Cuomo depicted his behavior in vague, neutral terms such as “interactions” or “it.” Research shows that this tactic avoids explicitly naming the transgression someone’s accused of and weakens an apology. Cuomo used subjunctive language like “may have been” rather than “were” when describing his actions as “too personal,” which weakens the apology by making the transgression hypothetical. He further minimized wrongdoing by emphasizing his innocent intentions over a dozen times in the two apologies, another common tactic.
Research underscores just how important acknowledging wrongdoing is. A study comparing various apology strategies showed that a clear statement of apology such as “I’m sorry for …” made the most difference in the audience’s assessment of the apology’s appropriateness.
2. Do not distance yourself from the wrongdoing
Cuomo also deflected responsibility by using passive and conditional words – “if they were offended” – as well as euphemisms. For example, he expressed embarrassment for “what happened” as though he was not responsible.
He also diverted attention to his own self-improvement at the expense of his victims’ pain by stating, “I will be the better from this experience.”
Studies show that explicitly claiming responsibility for the offense is critical for both personal and public apologies to be considered valid. When at fault, people making an apology should avoid attributing blame to anyone or anything other than themselves. That means framing the apology in the active voice and using “I” statements.
3. Apologize for your actions – not others’ feelings
“To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.”
Cuomo leaves ambiguous whether he intends “sorry” to express an apology or sympathy, a tactic public figures may use to express regret while evading culpability.
Apologizing for the outcome – someone being hurt – rather than the act that caused it lessens the transgressor’s responsibility by placing some blame on victims for their sensitivity, which further weakens its sincerity. Even Cuomo’s use of the word “that” at the end of the sentence above avoids explicit characterization of the offense, which research shows is another way to distance oneself from the transgression.
Apologists should refrain from apologizing for others’ pain without claiming ownership for the behavior that caused the pain.
4. Do express empathy and remorse
While Cuomo showed what not to do when making an apology, David Neeleman, former CEO of JetBlue Airlines, demonstrated how to do it effectively. The apology came in 2007, after an operational snafu during a winter storm caused the cancellation of over 1,000 flghts and left some customers stuck in airplanes on the ground for up to 10 hours.
In a statement, Neeleman clearly expressed empathy and remorse to the tens of thousands of customers affected.
“Words cannot express how truly sorry we are for the anxiety, frustration and inconvenience that you, your family, friends and colleagues experienced,” he said.
While Cuomo’s remorse is clouded by his 18 pleas of innocence, Neeleman said he was “deeply sorry” and regretted having “failed to deliver on this promise.”
Erving Goffman, an early pioneer in apology research, emphasized that denial, deflection and minimization do not mix well with empathy and remorse. To express empathy and remorse in your next apology, focus on healing the offended party’s pain by acknowledging, not minimizing, it.
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Lisa Leopold does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
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