Sunday, April 08, 2018

If I've offended you, I'm sorry

"I'm sorry. I was wrong."

"Thank you for your apology."

There, that wasn't so hard, was it?

Is it wrong not to apologize when being called out on some deed or transgression? It's a question that looms large lately with news reports of harassment, bullying, turning a blind eye, and assorted bad behavior from well-known players in various walks of life.

Sometimes taking responsibility for a bad act may arouse fear of losing credibility or livelihood. But sitting silent when the evidence suggests that, at the very least, an apology is called for, often results in chipping even more away at a reputation built.

A non-apology apology ("I'm sorry if any of my actions caused [assorted names here] to believe I did something wrong") often only serves to fuel the perception that the non-apologizer has behaved badly.

In the early 1990s, when I was working as an editor at a business magazine, we would often invite founders of startup companies to join our editorial team for an informal lunch. While these lunches didn't always turn into stories, they did provide opportunities for us to get to know people who were doing interesting things in the marketplace.

At one lunch, the founder of a company that made children's toys visited us. There was nothing remarkable about the lunch. We asked questions about where the founder got the idea for the company, how she planned for it to grow, and why she thought it might succeed in a market where no one had yet tried the approach she was taking.

The founder became a runner-up in a founder-of-the-year-type program we ran, but a couple of years later I ran into her at an industry conference and, after greeting her, learned that she found the lunch with us to be demoralizing because she found us to be condescending in our questions. That wasn't our intention, but rather than explain that it was our job to ask probing questions I simply said, "I'm sorry."

Clearly, there are times when apologizing would be wrong. If accused of doing something of which you know you are not guilty, holding fast is in order. When Socrates was accused of corrupting Athen's youth, he may have defended himself, but he never apologized, if his student Plato's account is trusted. Things didn't end well for Socrates (see hemlock/death), but he died sticking to his story.

When a well-known newscaster took aim on Twitter at a teenage activist last month because he shared on Twitter that he hadn't been accepted to several colleges, the teenager successfully convinced some of the newscaster's advertisers to pull advertisements from her show. Only after these advertisers acted did the newscaster sort of offer an apology. If the student wanted to go high in response, he simply could have responded, "thanks," even if he kept up the effort to influence her advertisers.

If adults want to model good ethical behavior for teenagers attempting to do good, the right thing is to be honest and forthright in their apologies if they discover they erred. If we're going to own our successes, we should also own our shortcomings. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


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