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When an apology falls short of remorse

This month, after Lincoln University president Robert Jennings made headlines for warning female students not to "put yourself in a situation" where you might later have to report a rape, Jennings apologized. Sort of.

This month, after Lincoln University president Robert Jennings made headlines for warning female students not to "put yourself in a situation" where you might later have to report a rape, Jennings apologized. Sort of.

What he said in a memo to students was: "I apologize for my choice of words. I certainly did not intend to hurt or offend anyone."

That's not much of an apology, the way Ari Kohen sees it. In fact, he said, it's more like doubling down: "He apologized for the word choice, but he's still standing by this concept. The problem is with the concept."

Kohen, author of the blog and a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been studying public apologies for a decade, and he's noticed there seem to be more of them than ever. Only, most of them don't inspire much forgiveness.

"A proper apology can really be transformative," said Kohen, whose focus is on restorative justice. "But we do public apologies now for everything, and there's virtually no thought behind them. . . . The potential of transformation is totally wasted."

In the book On Apology, published in 2004, psychiatrist Aaron Lazare reported that news stories on apologies had nearly doubled in the preceding decade - and that was before viral video arrived to amplify every blunder.

Now that even a tweet can spark a tempest, there are more calls for amends.

"But people haven't really thought about what it means to apologize," Kohen said.

Truly apologizing means acknowledging what you did wrong and expressing remorse, said Edwin Battistella, author of the recent book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology.

It sounds simple, but for many politicians, it isn't.

Consider former state Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery, who in October issued an apology for e-mailing porn around the office.

"I erred, and if I offended anyone, I am truly sorry," he said in a statement.

Then he added that the "cooked-up controversy" was part of a "vindictive pattern of attacks on him." Besides, as a former Marine and police officer, he had acted within the norms of military culture, he said.

"That's not an excuse, just a fact," he wrote.

In one tidy statement, McCaffery committed what Battistella said are the most common apology missteps: He was vague, he was conditional, he made excuses, and he deflected blame.

" 'I'm sorry if I offended anyone' - that's a kind of verbal judo," said Battistella, a linguist at Southern Oregon University. "It's not apologizing for anything. It's just regretting if anyone was offended. It puts the pressure back on the audience."

Yet, "if" remains a go-to route for backtracking.

After Gov. Corbett was lambasted last year for likening same-sex marriage to incest, he said in a statement: "My words were not intended to offend anyone. If they did, I apologize."

And last week - after CNN's Don Lemon suggested a woman who alleged Bill Cosby sexually assaulted her could have stopped it - Lemon apologized "if my question to her struck anyone as insensitive."

At a time when "sorry, not sorry" is part of the vernacular, Battistella said, the meaning of the word appears to have been forgotten.

He noted there's a difference between accepting responsibility and apologizing.

That's why Gov. Christie's 2,000-word statement in January over the traffic jam in Fort Lee now known as Bridgegate fell short, he said.

Christie was alternately "blindsided," "heartbroken," "disappointed," "embarrassed," and "disturbed" when he learned about the behavior of his staffers, he told the media.

Then, he said: "I have 65,000 people working for me every day. And I cannot know what each one of them is doing at every minute. But that doesn't matter; I'm ultimately responsible."

That's a far cry from "The buck stops here," said William Rosenberg, a Drexel University political scientist.

" 'The buck stops here' goes back to Harry Truman - but he wasn't saying any 'buts,' " Rosenberg said. "With Christie, his political career rests on him not being damaged with Bridgegate, so he's going to do everything he cannot to assume responsibility. 'The buck stops here, but I wasn't the one who did it' - that's kind of a halfhearted apology."

Often, the fear of consequences manifests as an unwillingness to name any wrongdoing explicitly. (Thus, the meaningless blanket apologies that are just about everywhere. For example, Mitchell Rubin, the former chairman of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission who pleaded guilty to commercial bribery this month, offered the court: "I just apologize for anything I did wrong.")

Huntingdon Valley etiquette consultant Gail Madison said a good apology is based on empathy.

"You have to be willing to lose a few ego points," she said. "There has to be humility. If you can't empathize or feel what it would have been like to have heard a comment, how can you really apologize?"

An even better apology will go a step further and offer to make things right.

Battistella points to former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki: He apologized for epic delays in services, and then, to show he meant it, resigned.

Also, this year, actor Jonah Hill and MSNBC host Melissa Harris Perry each made profuse, emotional and highly public apologies for offensive remarks that went viral.

Their messages were effective for a reason, said Kohen.

"They put themselves at the mercy of the audience. They lowered themselves in response to something they did that lowered other people.'"

The irony, Kohen added, is that a bad apology - one that meanders, makes excuses, and imposes conditions - is more complicated than a good one.

"A good apology doesn't offer excuses. It doesn't say that people who were offended made a mistake. It's short, it's clear, and you're done."