I’m Sorry … Not!
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Representative Mary Miller, a Republican congresswoman from Illinois, recently apologized for making this statement at a political rally: “Hitler was right on one thing: He said, ‘Whoever has the youth, has the future.’”
Why she referenced Hitler for this quote is a mystery. As this article notes, similar sentiments were expressed by Benjamin Franklin (“An investment in knowledge pays the best dividends”), Abraham Lincoln (“Teach the children so it will not be necessary to teach the adults”), and even the late comedian, George Carlin (“Don’t just teach your kids to read, teach them to question what they read. Teach them to question everything.”).
Considerable outrage greeted her remarks. After initially defending her statement, Ms. Miller issued this apology:
I sincerely apologize for any harm my words caused and regret using a reference to one of the most evil dictators in history to illustrate the dangers that outside influences can have on our youth. While some are trying to intentionally twist my words into something antithetical to my beliefs, let me be clear: I’m passionately pro-Israel and I will always be a strong advocate and ally of the Jewish community.
Was it effective?
The standard for effective apologies
Researchers conducted experiments that offer insights into what makes an apology sincere. One study unpacked the components of an effective apology, noting that, “when leaders identify the problem in an opening statement, address the audience directly, use concrete language to describe how the company will remedy the problem, and minimize the harm done,” their apology is likely to have the intended effect.
When apologizing sincerely, don’t speak in vague generalities. Personalize the apology and indicate what steps will be taken in the future to prevent what caused the need for an apology.
Other factors that determine whether your apology will have its intended impact include how soon the apology was delivered, who initiated the apology, and the motivation for apologizing.
In this context, let’s take a closer look at Congresswoman Miller’s apology.
A misguided approach
While Congresswoman Miller may have been well-intentioned when she apologized, her approach was seriously flawed.
Initially, her apology was conditional – a common error.
The classic conditional apology is: “I’m sorry if you were offended.”
Apologizing for “any harm my words caused” is conditional. You can be 100% confident that, if you reference Hitler in a positive manner, you will offend millions of people.
Her apology should have been unequivocal: “I’m sorry for the harm and deep pain I caused so many people by my insensitive reference to Hitler.”
She should not have tried to justify her conduct by explaining her intentions.
She should then have addressed the Jewish community. Something along these lines would have been effective:
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I fully understand how members of the Jewish community found my reference hurtful. I’ve read the reaction of Auschwitz survivors and others and now appreciate how my ill-advised comments caused them immeasurable pain. For that, I am deeply and unreservedly sorry.
She should then have spoken about how she would remedy the issue by stating something like this:
I intend to reach out to rabbis and other leaders of the Jewish community so that I will be more sensitive to their concerns in the future. I will also visit the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center to better understand the horrors of the Holocaust.
Finally, she should commit to learning from her mistake:
I know I can and must do better. I am committed to doing so and ask my constituents and others to give me an opportunity to make this right.
Don’t waste an apology
It takes courage and humility to realize you’ve erred and to issue an apology. Don’t waste it by doing it in a way that negates your intent and may exacerbate the problem.