“If there was offence, yes, I would apologise for that.” That was John Key the other day, when quizzed on remarks he apparently made about older New Zealanders in the infamous chinwag with John Banks, the recording of which has now been leaked online.
In doing so, the prime minister was using one of 14 variations of “non-apology apology”, which “apologises for the outcome but not for the act”, according to the classifications of Israeli academic Zohar Kampf.
In his paper for the Journal of Pragmatics, Kampf looked at “how public figures realise creative forms of apologetic speech in order to minimise their responsibility for misdeeds”.
Kampf’s study is just one in a burgeoning field of sorryology, which Tom Jacobs has surveyed in the new issue of the US magazine Miller-McCune.
In an era of truth commissions, demands for redress of historical grievances, and humiliating revelations of personal indiscretions, apologizing has evolved into a nuanced ritual, one that has attracted the interest of researchers from a variety of disciplines. Some studies provide insights into the effectiveness of apologies and explore the fine line between expressing regret and taking responsibility.
A study by Owen Hargie of the Universityh of Ulster, meanwhile, shines a light on the apologetic approaches in the financial sector, picking apart the testimony of four executives of financial institutions to a British parliamentary committee in 2009.
Jacobs summarises the findings:
“The main type of apology used by the senior bankers fell into the ‘I’m sorry you’re sick’ category, where the person is in effect saying that he or she has no personal responsibility for what happened, but recognizes and expresses sympathy for the person’s predicament,” the researchers write in the journal Organization.
“One strategy was to emphasise that they were very willing to apologize — and indeed had already done so before and were happy to do so again. However, in their expression of ‘apology,’ they denied personal agency and so responsibility, by stating they were ‘sorry at’ or ‘sorry about’ the ‘turn of events’ that caused the economic maelstrom.” Implying the financial crisis was an unforeseeable disaster, one banker declared: “We are sorry at the effect it has had on the communities we serve.”
Sorry may no longer be the hardest word, as Elton John would have it, but it certainly seems to be the most carefully couched.