As the wise man said, “An apol­ogy is a good way to have the last word”


Mea Culpa An apol­ogy is a good way to have the last word

Older Ro­man Catholics may rec­og­nize the Latin words mea culpa. They mean “(through) my fault” and were spo­ken prior to di­vulging your sins to a priest and re­pent­ing. (These days, you can pre­pare for Con­fes­sion by track­ing your trans­gres­sions with a Mea Culpa app!) Since most re­li­gions in­cor­po­rate atone­ment into their moral guide­lines, why is it still so hard for us to ad­mit mis­takes and say we’re sorry in the US? Here are three pos­si­ble rea­sons:

1) We are a highly liti­gious so­ci­ety, and we

fear law­suits.

2) We worry about the ef­fect an apol­ogy may

have on our busi­nesses or ca­reers.

3) We fear it will make us look frail, stupid, or…hu­man.

But to err is hu­man and as a cul­ture, we are rel­a­tively com­fort­able with risk, so of course we’re go­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence fail­ures. There­fore, it’s a given that we should take the heat when blun­ders oc­cur and say we’re sorry. How­ever, even when we do try to apol­o­gize, some­times we get it wrong.

Nataly Kelly, coau­thor of Found in Trans­la­tion, re­lates the fol­low­ing per­sonal ac­count of an apol­ogy gone awry:

“I once in­ter­preted for an Amer­i­can busi­ness­man who spilled a bit of his drink on his Latin Amer­i­can col­league’s suit. He apol­o­gized pro­fusely at first, and I could tell that the Latin Amer­i­can gen­tle­man did not re­ally mind. How­ever, through the rest of the din­ner meet­ing, the US ex­ec­u­tive con­tin­ued rais­ing the is­sue and mak­ing jokes about it, say­ing things like, ‘Oh, here comes the ap­pe­tizer, let’s see if I can get some grease spots on your tie.’ In gen­eral, it’s a bad idea to use hu­mor to apol­o­gize, be­cause it can end up con­fus­ing the is­sue. In this case, I think it made the other party ques­tion whether or not the orig­i­nal apol­ogy was sin­cere.”

As Kelly points out, an ex­pres­sion of re­gret should carry some grav­i­tas with it. Adding hu­mor to an al­ready un­com­fort­able sit­u­a­tion – par­tic­u­larly across cul­tures – is very con­fus­ing and can make the “pen­i­tent” ap­pear disin­gen­u­ous.

One en­vi­ron­ment where apolo­gies have sig­nif­i­cant value is Ja­pan. In­di­vid­u­als con­stantly apol­o­gize to each other through­out Ja­panese so­ci­ety – for in­tru­sions on the phone, face-to-face in­ter­rup­tions dur­ing the day, etc. But when cor­po­ra­tions com­mit egre­gious er­rors, their lead­ers must show se­ri­ous re­morse in a for­mal man­ner, or they will never re­gain the pub­lic’s trust and do busi­ness there again.

Mul­ti­ple CEOs and pres­i­dents have been broad­cast live on Ja­panese tele­vi­sion de­liv­er­ing their apolo­gies, bow­ing and humbly lis­ten­ing to an­gry clients – some­times at the feet of the of­fended par­ties. See if you can match the com­pany lead­ers who pub­licly apol­o­gized with their com­pa­nies’ of­fense:

Not all busi­ness dis­as­ters are the fault of the com­pany. The 1982 Chicago Tylenol poi­son­ings which re­sulted in seven fa­tal­i­ties were a case in point. De­spite the fact that the bot­tles were tam­pered with af­ter reach­ing the shelves, John­son & John­son “as­sumed re­spon­si­bil­ity by en­sur­ing pub­lic safety first.” Both the FBI and the FDA thought a prod­uct re­call was an over­re­ac­tion, but the com­pany’s late chair­man, James E. Burke, over­ruled them and pulled all Tylenol off the shelves at a cost of ap­prox­i­mately $100 mil­lion.

Within three months, Tylenol re­turned in dif­fi­cult-to-adul­ter­ate caplets in triple-sealed boxes. A year later, Tylenol had al­most re­gained its old mar­ket share, and the com­pany’s re­sponse be­came an ob­ject study in how to re­spond to a cri­sis.

Terri Mor­ri­son is a Speaker and Co-au­thor of nine books, in­clud­ing Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: The Best­selling Guide to Do­ing Busi­ness in More Than Sixty Coun­tries, and her new book, Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: Sales & Mar­ket­ing. She is pres­i­dent of Get­ting Through Cus­toms, de­vel­op­ers of Kiss Bow or Shake Hands Dig­i­tal - avail­able through McGraw-Hill. Ter­riMor­ri­son@kiss­bowor­shake­hands Twit­ter @Kis­sBowAuthor.

Tel (610) 725-1040.

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