Was that “sorry” just “oops!” or true remorse?


Apologies are the subject of media coverage, court reporting, columns, editorial opinion and public debate.  They are part of life.

A sincere, unconditional and timely apology is a communication skill.  It is also a

measure of integrity and sincerity.

Sport stars like Oscar Pistorius, Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods, politicians like Pallo Jordan, Dina Pule and Bill Clinton, celebrities like Hugh Grant, Jeremy Clarkson and Reese Witherspoon have all apologised for their deeds, actions and words. For some, the jury is still out on their level of regret.

Sometimes public figures apologise, even resign because it is the right thing to do.  At other times there is a damning revelation in the media, from a whistle blower or a partner that leaves them no choice.

Some offer a sincere, heartfelt apology, other a highly qualified and conditional “oops!”

Communication advice in a reputational crisis is “tell it all and tell it fast.”  Public opinion seems more forgiving for full disclosure as opposed to confession in installments.  A highly qualified apology such as: “Well, if that is the way you experienced it, it was not my intention.  If you feel aggrieved, I offer my apology.”  Not good enough.

The word “remorse” indicates a greater degree of regret than “sorry” or “oops!” It can be defined in legal, psychological, criminal, cultural, spiritual and many more terms. One of my friends, a labour law commissioner, who often has to rule on apologies and remorse, asked me to try and define it from a communication perspective.

Remorse features not only in courts, but in tribunals, disciplinary hearings, mediation and arbitration processes

To judge the sincerity of the “remorse” may require a process, rather than definitions. The mere use of the word “remorse” without any emotional content or depth should not be regarded as sufficient to warrant forgiveness, acquittal or a lesser punishment.

When someone says, “I am truly sorry” or “I deeply regret my action” this begins to indicate some emotional content, rather a recited phrase for closure.  Timing is important.  When is the apology offered?

Has the insulter, transgressor or accused really repented?  Do they truly see the error of their ways?  Have they really changed their values, beliefs and conviction? 

These questions could help:

  • You say you are sorry.  What do you mean when you say that?
  • Why do you think your actions were wrong?
  • What did you think at the time you committed them?
  • Do you think you disappointed your community, colleagues or employer?  Why?
  • And the customer/clients/residents/people?
  • Do you think your actions have harmed someone?  Whom?
  • How would you feel if someone did this to you?
  • If you think your actions have caused hurt, what can you do about that hurt?
  • How can those you have disappointed and mislead ever trust you again?
  • Have your thoughts, views or life changed as a result of this incident?
  • How?
  • Have you thought how you would decide and act in future?
  • What is the first thing you will do now  – irrespective of the outcome?

The responses could provide a greater understanding of whether the “remorse” is real and warrants lighter punishment or simply a warning.

The responses should be assessed in terms of words, body language, emotion, tone of voice, gestures and other criteria used in legal process to determine credibility.  Someone watching, listening or reading intently with the context of the facts should be able to form a pretty good idea.

They will know if the word “remorse” is simply used on advice and for quick self-absolution.  They could also sense whether there is, indeed, a deeper understanding of wrongdoing, hurt, dishonesty, unacceptable behaviour and changed thinking that might lead to improved and value-based behaviour in future.  Redress, restorative justice and interaction with the affected people or community are becoming important elements in the process of remorse, forgiveness and healing.

Never underestimate the value of a sincere, unconditional and, importantly, speedy apology given freely and directly to the injured party or parties.

Often, however, as Elton John reminds us: “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”