HomeEVERYDAY ETIQUETTEThe hardest word?

The hardest word?

In Wednesday’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference, Theresa May issued an apology for her disappointing election campaign earlier in the year.

Such a candid expression of regret is still relatively rare in the public sphere, when those in leadership roles might fear the adverse publicity – and possibly even legal consequences – of admitting culpability.

Take April’s United Airlines incident as an example. After a video showed passenger Dr David Dao being forcibly dragged off the plane by security staff, Oscar Munoz, the airline’s CEO, took an unorthodox approach to containing the resulting media storm.

In his first statement he apologised for “having to re-accommodate these passengers”, a brilliantly Orwellian euphemism for leaving an individual bruised, bloodied and humiliated just because he declined to give up his seat.

Secondly, in a leaked email to his staff, Munoz accused Dr Dao of being “disruptive and belligerent”, once again implying that he had brought this extraordinarily disproportionate treatment upon himself.

When Munoz did eventually issue another statement (a whole two days after the incident occurred) apologising “deeply” and taking “full responsibility”, his contrition was rendered meaningless by his initial attempt to sidestep blame.

We should at this point issue a disclaimer that we’re not intending to pick on United Airlines: recent news has shown that we could have mentioned several other airlines in this piece!

When Munoz did eventually apologise, his contrition was rendered meaningless by his initial attempt to sidestep blame.

The power of a sincere apology should never be underestimated, even when we consider ourselves not personally at fault. As difficult as it can be, expressing regret and sympathy for another individual’s misfortune shows our humanity and helps to defuse a tense exchange, often preventing further ramifications.

Nor does a ‘sincere’ apology mean saying, ‘I’m sorry that you feel that way’ or, ‘I’m sorry that you’ve chosen to take offence’, which places the blame on the other person.

And of course, saying sorry is just the first step; the next is to try and put things right. Here are some more tips for making amends – both at work and in your personal life:

With a customer:
  • If you’re speaking to someone on the phone or in person, try to keep your tone of voice level and unemotional.
  • Explain the reason for the error. It can help to provide context and may invite sympathy. Don’t become defensive or try to blame others, however.
  • Offer a resolution that can be implemented swiftly and easily – a replacement or refund, for example. Make sure this reflects the level of inconvenience caused: a measly voucher or discount code may just cause further annoyance.
  • Implement this resolution swiftly and efficiently, and keep the customer informed throughout the process.
  • If somebody becomes aggressive or abusive, politely thank them for their feedback and draw the conversation to a close. There’s no need to engage with bullying behaviour.
With a colleague, friend or family member:
  • Don’t put off apologising. Feelings will only fester and get worse.
  • Ask if you can meet up in person. If that’s not possible, pick up the phone: an apology by text message or email won’t have as much impact as a conversation.
  • Ensure that the conversation takes place in private rather than in front of an audience.
  • No matter how bad you feel, resist the temptation to turn the blame around onto the other person.
  • Follow up with a message or card. A gift shouldn’t be necessary, but it never hurts…
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Latest comments
  • Excellent article!

  • Totally agree. One small comment: if the incident started because you gave comment or raised (or whatever) to a person, where an audience (however small) was present. Make sure that if you have apologised to the person first, the next step is to apologise asgain in front of the same audience or at least address your mistake with the next opportunity. Difficult, but in the end worth it.

  • Especially where there is contributory blame I find that asking the aggrieved if they will help me analyse what went wrong by going over the process identifies their own shortcomings as well as those of the person making the apology

  • Very clear and concise explanation of how not to behave. We have all been caught occasionally, but can learn from our mistakes. Unfortunately, we can all cite occasions where our peers may not necessarily be up to the required standard of communication.

  • Well written, succinct and clear advice. The airline example was a good one to use because it shows what happens when someone is more bothered about possible legal liability than about their relationship with their customer, and thereby with the public, which can be a real public relations mistake. The irony is that legal issues can almost invariably be resolved with money, whereas a lost reputation can’t.

  • I love this article. It’s completely normal to make a mistake and it’s completely normal to struggle with your pride and admit you’ve made a mistake. Apologies can be brief and go a long way. An excellent it strategy is to always admit you’ve done wrong when you have and then to fix it. I always struggle with the blaming someone else at first, but then I come around.


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