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January 14, 2005 7:19 AM   Subscribe

Based on yesterday's discussion about celebrities who give offense by their wardrobe choices and malfunctions, I am left wondering about the "apologies" that are issued. Since when is it an apology to say "Sorry if I offended anyone..." instead of "I apologize for causing offense..."? What would ettiquette demand? How should they issue their apologies? Does the "if" even mean they believe they did something wrong or is it a trick to make people drop the topic?
posted by onhazier to Writing & Language (19 answers total)
 
But the apology is only one part of a PR campaign. The apology is the soundbite Fox News airs while they either excoriate or support whichever celebrity was talked into doing whatever inane PR stunt. And the offense, in general, is planned: if it offends the American Christian right, it builds cred on the American seaboards. If it offends, say, France, it builds cred in the American heartland.

So I don't think we can even look at this in the realm of etiquette -- of course these aren't proper apologies. They're merely stage three or four in an orchestrated series of events. And yes: the use of "if" or "anyone" is distancing; it's part of an appeal to the section of the public who believe the offended parties are silly/uptight/zealous. It treads the line of insincerity on purpose.

Janet Jackson: "I apologize to anyone offended."

Justin Timberlake: "I am sorry that anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance of the Super Bowl. It was not intentional and is regrettable."
posted by RJ Reynolds at 7:32 AM on January 14, 2005


It's a non-apology apology. It says "The people who are offended are the ones with the problem."

“If anyone was offended, I apologize, because that was not my intention.” Arnold Schwarzenegger, on his sexual harrassment charges.

"I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement". Trent Lott, on his statements that Strom Thurmond should have been president

"Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) said this week he was sorry if anyone was offended by his tribute to a fellow Democratic senator who once voted against civil rights legislation.

Dodd has been criticized by some conservative commentators for saying on April 1 that Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) would have been a great senator and leader at any time in history, including during the Civil War. "
Washington Post, April 2004
posted by barjo at 7:46 AM on January 14, 2005


"I am sorry that anyone was offended" (J. Timberlake)

This is not even a mock apology, it's an added insult. It means something like: "there are people out there who are stupid enough to be offended, I deeply regret having to share a planet with those morons".

It's a common trick, and it's probably supposed to be cool.
posted by NekulturnY at 7:47 AM on January 14, 2005


It means something like: "there are people out there who are stupid enough to be offended, I deeply regret having to share a planet with those morons".

This is precisely the sort of left-handed apology one ought to offer when he's done nothing wrong. If the offended parties are too stupid to understand the doublespeak here, then too bad for them. (Then again, I thought Prince Harry's outfit was pretty funny, so maybe my sense of outrage at public figures is way outside the norm.)
posted by uncleozzy at 7:54 AM on January 14, 2005


My wife trained me not to do this. When we first met, I would say things like, "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings," and she pointed out that it made her feel like it was her problem for having hurt feelings. I no longer do this. I say, "I'm sorry I was rude to you," or whatever.

But I should point out that my internal state hasn't changed. I'm just communicating it differently (better). I ALWAYS meant "I'm sorry I behaved badly." I NEVER meant to blame the victim. It was a communication issue. So someone who talks this way doesn't necessarily MEAN to sound condescending.
posted by grumblebee at 7:58 AM on January 14, 2005


This is precisely the sort of left-handed apology one ought to offer when he's done nothing wrong.

Or simply keep quiet, but that's rather too much to expect in this day and age of attention-addicts, I suppose.

My wife trained me not to do this. When we first met, I would say things like, "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings," and she pointed out that it made her feel like it was her problem for having hurt feelings. I no longer do this. I say, "I'm sorry I was rude to you," or whatever.

That reads like what she has actually "trained" you to do is to accept guilt whenever she ascribes it. Not sure if that's what you meant or not. But it is possible to be sorry that you've hurt someone even if you feel that you've done nothing wrong without simply acquiesing and accepting blame.
posted by rushmc at 8:02 AM on January 14, 2005


Ooh! I hate these phony, non-apologies.

The worst is, "I'm sorry you feel that way." That's not an apology. It's worse than an apology, because it puts the blame onto you. I've been known to call people out when they do this.
posted by Coffeemate at 8:17 AM on January 14, 2005


This is just the sort of apology I offered when my boss wanted me to make sure we weren't in the shit with our IT people, even though their complaint was bollocks. Basically it's what you do when you're put into a situation where you're forced into behaviour that you have no belief in. It's like when your teacher made you shake hands and make up with one of the other kids - utterly meaningless.
posted by biffa at 8:19 AM on January 14, 2005


I understand what you mean, rush, but she just trained (explained to, taught, whatever) me to be clearer. If I really didn't think I did something wrong, I wouldn't say I did (and she wouldn't want me to). But I was saying "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings" when I really DID think I did something wrong.

The literally words aren't offensive. I WAS sorry I hurt her feelings. But it does make her (and many other people, I suspect) feel like I'm treating her like a child. "Aww, did the wittle baby get her feeeeeeeling hurt? I'm so sowwwy." Saying, "I'm sorry I acted rudely" implies "I'm shouldn't have acted that way regardless of whether you actually took offense or not."
posted by grumblebee at 8:20 AM on January 14, 2005


There is a comedian (I'm guessing George Carlin, but I would hate to attribute yet another incorrect quote to GC) who does a bit on this exact thing and he finishes the phrase - "they would like to apologize ... " with " ... but they never do".
posted by milovoo at 8:59 AM on January 14, 2005


grumblebee (and others here, to a lesser extent), I have to disagree with you.

IMHO, people- Americans in particular- are so f'ing sensitive and self-entitled that they demand apologies over everything that hurts their feelings. If you're offended by what I say, it's not always my fault.

There are, no doubt, plenty of instances of backhanded apologies that use this technique, but I don't think it's in-and-of-itself bad form. It's the appropriate response in some situations.

(see also the difference between "imply" and "infer")
posted by mkultra at 9:02 AM on January 14, 2005


mkultra, I'm not sure how you're in disagreement with me. From my post just a few lines above: "If I really didn't think I did something wrong, I wouldn't say I did (and she wouldn't want me to). But I was saying "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings" when I really DID think I did something wrong."
posted by grumblebee at 9:22 AM on January 14, 2005


Yes. Any "apology" offered in the passive tense, or with the word "if", is in fact not an apology.

"I'm sorry if I've offended you" is not an apology, since what it really has attached is "and, if you weren't offended, I stand by my statement."

"I sorry people were offended" isn't either, since it really says is "I made a mistake in saying offensive things to people who would be offended by them."

"I'm sorry I offended people" is an apology, and the only things that are are those that are unconditional, in the first person, and in the active tense.

And, no, mkultra, it is never appropriate to use a backhanded apology. The proper response if you truly feel the other person has no right to ask for an apology is "I stand by my statement, and I refuse to apologize."
posted by eriko at 9:27 AM on January 14, 2005


*drinks coffee*

Ah, yes, the words now appear as they were actually written. Sorry 'bout that (...or am I?)
posted by mkultra at 9:29 AM on January 14, 2005


I'm with uncleozzy and mkultra.

With co-workers and acquaintances, I think there's such a thing as an appropriate backhanded apology. Sometimes it's necessary to maintain cordial and cooperative relationships with people not of your own choosing, and sometimes you gotta apologize for unintended misunderstanding or offense without 'fessing up to an error.

I think that entertainers, whose job depends on complete strangers liking them, sometimes have to regard the public like co-workers. (I don't really have a problem with Ms. Jackson's or Mr. Timberlake's "apologies," since I don't think a flash of breast requires an apology beyond the breezy "Whoops! Sorry 'bout that." that I would offer if my blouse came unbuttoned.)
posted by desuetude at 10:28 AM on January 14, 2005


sometimes you gotta apologize for unintended misunderstanding or offense without 'fessing up to an error

This confuses me. What is wrong with apologizing in such a way that it's not backhanded? What's wrong with accepting responsibility for causing offense even if you never intended to and you, personally, wouldn't be offended by the same words or actions? Aren't you culpable for your words and actions?
posted by onhazier at 10:51 AM on January 14, 2005


What's wrong with accepting responsibility for causing offense even if you never intended to and you, personally, wouldn't be offended by the same words or actions? Aren't you culpable for your words and actions?

Because I shouldn't have to apologize to every over-sensitive little flower who takes offense at little things, particularly in a way that indicates that I'm responsible for you feeling bad. What's wrong with accepting the fact that your opinion isn't shared with everyone?
posted by mkultra at 11:40 AM on January 14, 2005


Gotcha, grumblebee.

"I'm sorry if I've offended you" is not an apology, since what it really has attached is "and, if you weren't offended, I stand by my statement."

"I'm sorry if I've offended you" is a perfectly good apology, depending upon context—a conditional apology, to be exact. "IF I have offended you, that makes me feel regret." "I'm sorry that I offended you" is to apologize for an outcome (intended or otherwise) of certain actions. I understand that you want to condemn pseudo-apologies that are really barbs instead, but don't paint with so broad a brush that you include genuine conditional apologies. It is important to be able to say "I am sorry that I have caused you to be offended, though I don't agree that what I said/did was inherently offensive."

Aren't you culpable for your words and actions?

Yes, but you are not culpable for every possible (and possibly bizarre or idiosyncratic) interpretation of them.
posted by rushmc at 3:55 PM on January 14, 2005


My favorite is, "I'm sorry you feel this way," or, to demand an apology for being misconstrued and for attempting to deny my freedom to express my views and feelings.
posted by semmi at 11:28 AM on January 18, 2005


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