saying you’re sorry: an exercise in discourse analysis

September 18, 2006

There have been several prominent apologisers in recent times- the Queen apologised to the Maoris, the Japanese to the Chinese, even Tony Blair apologised the other day for the behaviour of his party. The late Pope was a very distinguished apologiser, apologising to the Jewish people, to the Eastern Orthodox Christians and Muslims for the Crusades, and to the world of science and reason by admitting that Galileo should not have been condemned by the Inquisition.This is a cursory analysis of some of the tactics people use. (My own apologies to The Telegraph and LA Times for lifting some of their examples).

1 Defiant
“I’ve apologised, if that’s the phrase, until I’m apologised out. Have I got to walk on my hands and knees for the rest of my life?” Ron Atkinson, after making derogatory remarks about a player’s colour and work rate.
“Well, my analysis was wrong and I’m sorry…. What do you want me to do? Go over and kiss the camera?”
Bill O’Reilly, after being confronted with videotape of him saying that if no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, “I will apologize to the nation and I will not trust the Bush administration again.”

2 Grovelling
Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk, Stem Cell Researcher (through translator): “I feel so miserable that it’s difficult even to say sorry.” (I don’t think he was apologising for his name).
Hugh Grant : “I need to suffer for this. I’ve done an abominable thing. I did a bad thing, and there you have it.” (… though it didn’t feel too bad at the time)

3. The ‘did-it-really-happen?’ apology
“If I did the things that they say I did, am I sorry, do I apologize? Yes.”
Bob Packwood, apologizing for unwanted sexual advances toward various women, or as he once put it, “for the conduct that it was alleged that I did.”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: “If I’ve done anything wrong, that I thought that I’m playful and just, you know, have fun, I feel bad about that.” (a little bit of muddled grammar can also help put people off the scent).

4. The ‘so that upset you’ apology
This is one of the most common forms of apology. You say you’re sorry not for your action but for the reaction to it.
“I’m sorry if she felt she was harmed.”
Sportscaster Marv Albert, in court on sexual assault charges for biting a woman on the back more than a dozen times.
The Pope also tried this tactic: ‘Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday he was “deeply sorry” about the angry reaction sparked by his speech about Islam’.
The use of ‘may’ and ‘any’ are common here, suggesting that it’s by no means certain there was any hurt:
“Yesterday a senior Scotland Yard officer said “I would also like to make my apologies for any hurt that that investigation may have caused the family.” This when the victim was murdered after police had allegedly failed to investigate properly a previous attack.
The Pope again:
‘“The Holy Father is very sorry that some passages of his speech may have sounded offensive to the sensibilities of Muslim believers,” Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said in a statement.’

5 the ‘you misunderstood me’ apology
Again, a very common tactic: “I’m sorry if you interpreted my statement that ‘black is white’ as implying that ‘black is white’.”
“The comment was not meant to be a regional slur. To the extent that it was misinterpreted to be one, I apologize.”
Lawyer Kenneth Taylor, after referring to people living in the mountains of Kentucky as “illiterate cave dwellers.”

“If it’s an insult, I certainly didn’t think it was, but if they are offended, then I certainly offer an apology.”
Jimmy Swaggart, after threatening to kill any homosexual who looked at him with lust.

You can also say the misinterpretation was because your remarks were taken ‘out of context, in the fairly safe knowledge that no one will have bothered to read everything you said:
‘The Vatican claimed that the Pope had been quoted out of context and that he had not intended to insult Islam.’

6 The ‘think how bad I feel’ apology
Jo Moore after the post 9/11 memo:
“It is something … I find it difficult to believe that I did. It is something that I will have to live with for the rest of my life. In life we all do things we regret and that the most important thing is that we learn
from them.”

7 The ‘I’m not like that’ apology
‘Please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite’. Mel Gibson after launching into a barrage of anti-Semitic statements.

8. The ‘I was just joking’ apology
“It was just a flippant remark ….’ It was not a thought-out response…. It was a joking response … with no malicious intent…. I wholeheartedly apologize.” Father (recently passed away) of a famous sports personality after answering a question about the book that had most inspired him with “Mein Kampf.”
“In the heat of the moment, I made a stupid remark. I apologize for it.”
Blood, Sweat and Tears singer David Clayton-Thomas, after telling his audience that the weather was “as hot as the last train car going to Auschwitz.”

9 The ‘laugh it off with another offensive remark’ apology.
Instead of words like ‘sorry’ use ‘sad’ or ‘disappointed’ etc.
“I am saddened by the fuss it caused. They probably won’t let me back in the country. To be honest, I saw enough of the place last time I was there.”
Anne Robinson after making derogatory remarks about the Welsh

10 The Boris tactic
Apologise for one part of what you said:
“In so far as it imposed an outdated stereotype on the whole of Liverpool, and thereby caused offence, I sincerely apologise.”
Boris Johnson, a master of the art of apology, talking about his Liverpool remarks (he used the same tactics in the Papua New Guinea incident). The great thing here is that you don’t need to withdraw your original remarks.

Doing a ‘Boris’ is actually a complex and subtle tactic, often laced with sarcasm, as in: “I meant no insult to the people of Papua New Guinea, (/Liverpool/somewher else- delete as appropriate) who I’m sure lead lives of blameless bourgeois domesticity in common with the rest of us.”
11 The serial apology
“I really, from the very bottom of my heart, want to apologize…. At one time or another, I’ve offended almost every group. I’m sure I’ll be apologizing again.”
Ted Turner, after calling Christianity “a religion for losers.”

12 The ‘Blair apology’
Say you’re sorry for something you didn’t do (e.g. the Irish potato famine of the 1840) while refusing to apologise for what you did (e.g. making a complete cock-up in Iraq)
“And the problem is, I can apologise for the information that turned out to be wrong, but I can’t, sincerely at least, apologise for removing Saddam.”

13 The ‘Beckham’ apology
Apologise to anybody you can think of- this can make even a weak apology sound good.
“I now know that was wrong and apologise to the Football Association, the England manager, my team-mates and all England fans for this. I have also apologised personally to my manager Sven-Goran Eriksson.” Later, Beckham apologised to the Queen, the Pope, his mother-in-law, Mel Gibson and the man with the green anorak in the fifth row.

14 The honest, unequivocal, plainly stated apology (very rare)
‘Asda Carbon Steel Hand Axe
Our ASDA brand Carbon Steel Hand Axe would be fantastic apart from the fact that the head can come detached from the handle. Quite clearly this is not on so we’ve decided that you need to know. Thankfully no one has been hurt. If you’ve bought one then could you please bring it back. In return we will of course give you your money back – you don’t even need your receipt. We’ve also had a word with the buyer to make sure this doesn’t happen again. It goes without saying…we’re very sorry indeed.’

15 The Ken Livingstone or ‘stuff you’ apology (or point-blank refusal to apologise)
As when, for example, you have likened a Jewish reporter to a “concentration camp guard”.


2 Responses to “saying you’re sorry: an exercise in discourse analysis”

  1. Imran Anwar Says:

    Please read urgently and comment. Read what “POPE” stands for and what his “apology” was. Thanks.


  2. tomeemayeepa Says:

    I think you’re right on the apology and on the extremism from both sides. At least Clinton’s predicament is understandable.

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