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Sorry, so Sorry

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by chris Robinson

When fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld died earlier this year in Paris, the flood of editorials that flowed from his demise all basically touched on the same thing – that the Chanel übermensch was an outspoken genius and a trailblazer whose passing truly represented the end of an era. Besides an unparalleled talent for turning chiffon and satin into one-off covetable clothes, Lagerfeld had become infamous by never allowing himself to ever say sorry. 

His refusal to accept blame – even as he openly insulted everyone from Adele to Angela Merkel – truly set him apart. 

“He never apologized,” noted fashion reporter Vanessa Friedman in the New York Times. “In all the hagiography that happens after a death, it should not be glossed over. Not just because it was part of who Mr. Lagerfeld was, fully resplendent and sometimes ugly humanity, but because it is part of what marked him out as belonging to a different time.” 

Ironically, for a fashion designer, Lagerfeld was decidedly off-trend on this one. Today, everyone everywhere is now apologizing for everything. Governments, corporations, school boards, the Catholic Church, you name it. Admitting wrongdoing – even when it’s not really your fault (see Toronto Maple Leafs owner Lawrence Tanenbaum’s open letter to fans apologizing for the team’s seeming inability to score goals) – has become the socially sanctioned thing to do.   

Apologizing is now so ingrained in the culture, it’s practically de rigueur, a knee-jerk response to everything from the tragic to the trivial. The internet is awash in websites offering instructions on how best to grovel and show remorse for those – sorry – too stupid to figure it out for themselves. (OK, we’ll tell you: act sincere.)

Lagerfeld might have gotten away with it. But in recent months, luxury brands like Burberry, Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana have had to apologize for committing (wittingly or not) acts of cultural insensitivity in the public domain. These companies immediately and without hesitation got down on bended knee to apologize to consumers whose loyalty they need to ensure if they want to stay in business. 

In today’s world, trust and transparency are the twin mantras that keep economies and their institutions humming. Companies without an apology plan in place as a part of those policies will sooner or later find themselves begging for forgiveness. That’s practically a given, says marketing expert Alan Middleton (MBA ’77, PhD ’97), an adjunct professor at the Schulich School of Business. 

“If companies today have any brain at all, they’d realize that there’s nothing in this world that we do as a human activity that can’t have a potential downside – as Boeing is now just discovering with its 737 Max aircraft issue. Public relations houses call it crisis management. But I wish they’d change the title of that because this is all about reputation management, and it’s really about your corporate culture, how transparent and trustworthy you want to be for the consumer.”  

But apologizing is far more than just good business practice. For countries with human rights abuses on their record it’s the moral thing to do. Officially saying sorry for historical grievances is seen to advance a nation’s global profile while providing the people with a way to move forward from past trauma. It’s why so many nations are now outdoing themselves with apologies in a bid to advance both status and credibility on the world stage.  

Last year, France apologized for tortures and disappearances that took place in Algeria in the 1950s and Holland took responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre of some 350 Muslim men in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. Meanwhile, Germany apologized for crimes against homosexuals during the Nazi era, and the United Kingdom for its callous treatment of the so-called Windrush generation of Caribbean migrants who came to Britain in 1948 and were denied medical care and threatened with deportation for not having adequate proof of citizenship – which wasn’t their fault. 

Not to be outdone, in the House of Commons last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for a past government’s refusal to allow a shipload of Jews and other refugees fleeing Hitler’s Europe to land on Canada’s shores in 1939, a decision provoked by the country’s then “none is too many” anti-Semitic policy. All passengers on board the St. Louis luxury ocean liner were eventually sent back to their port of origin. 

“Of course, an apology can never repair the original damage. Nor will it bring back needlessly lost lives,” said immigration and refugee lawyer and Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Sean Rehaag in a Toronto Star op-ed piece co-authored with Sharry Aiken last May. “But it may provide some comfort to the families and communities affected. And, if done properly, it will help shine light on a part of Canadian history that does not get the attention it deserves.” 

The apologies just keep on coming. As widely reported, Trudeau has issued at least five other official apologies since taking office in 2015: for the execution of Canadian soldiers during the First World War, for turning away a shipload of immigrants from India in 1914, for the harm done to Indigenous Peoples from the residential school system and to the residential school survivors in Newfoundland and Labrador who were (accidentally) left out of that original apology, and for the state-ordered discrimination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Canadians. 

Before him, prime minister Brian Mulroney issued the first apology to a racialized group when in 1988 he apologized to Japanese Canadians for their internment during and after the Second World War. In 2006, prime minister Stephen Harper apologized to all Chinese Canadians affected by the 1885-1923 head tax and the 1923 amendment to the Chinese Immigration Act, which banned all people of Chinese ancestry from entering Canada. 

But it all begs the question: does saying sorry with such frequency truly help matters or does it trivialize the gesture, turning an apology into a clichéd phrase signifying nothing? As Rehaag and Aiken noted in their editorial, “For an apology to be meaningful there must be a sincere commitment not to repeat the offence.” It’s a conundrum in which York University graduate Angie Wong (MA ’14, PhD ’18) has invested a lot of thought. 

A newly appointed professor of women’s studies at Lakehead University, Wong recently published a paper on the overall function, purpose and authenticity of state-sponsored apologies, focusing in on Canada and its past treatment of its Asian minorities and Indigenous Peoples. 

“When someone apologizes, there’s an implication that they’ll never commit the same injustice again,” says Wong. “But if a country like Canada is continually apologizing but without seemingly doing much to correct a past wrong then those apologies ring hollow, as the continued over-policing of Black and Indigenous bodies would suggest.” 

Or maybe the prime minister, like other Canadians, just can’t help himself. Saying sorry is something of a national habit. 

A 2018 national poll found that 39 per cent of respondents said they apologized at least daily, with 18 per cent admitting to apologizing hourly. Another 19 per cent said they apologized three to five times a week, while 17 per cent said they apologized just a few times a month. Only six per cent claimed to never apologize, which, sorry to say, suggests that they aren’t really Canadian at all. 

I have had students work for Maple Leaf Foods and they all say they were not surprised. The apology spoke to the inside of the brand, its core values

But saying sorry isn’t all that simple, says C. Ward Struthers, a professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Health at York University who studies victims of transgressions and their willingness to forgive or hold a grudge.

“Sorry is one component of a larger interpersonal mechanism, an apology, that we sometimes use to mend the damage we cause when we commit transgressions,” Struthers says. “An apology has several components, including acknowledging the wrongdoing, taking responsibility for it, showing remorse to the victim, saying sorry, trying to remedy what you did and doing this on your own volition. So, sorry is essentially the verbal response of an apology.”

But while apologizing may come natural to at least some of us, to others it’s a stance to avoid, especially when a potential lawsuit is involved. 

Lawyers typically hate apologies, as they are often interpreted as an admission of guilt. Saying sorry makes you vulnerable, the legalists argue, and potentially puts you on the hook for millions of dollars in damages. 

But Middleton has at his fingertips several examples of where defying the lawyers ended up paying dividends for brands that fessed up when they went wrong. Saying sorry enabled companies in the public eye to save face and survive in a culture where everything has come under scrutiny, including the ability to make amends. 

In his classes, Middleton frequently cites Maple Leaf Foods as a test case example of when saying sorry was not just a good business decision but the right moral and ethical thing to do.

In 2008, the Canadian sliced meats company was linked to a strain of bacteria found in their Toronto processing plant that left over 20 dead.

At the time, lawyers strongly urged CEO Michael McCain not to apologize for the crisis, fearing the lawsuits that would ensue once he did. But McCain ignored their advice, giving a heartfelt apology that ended up ensuring the future of the company. 

Post-apology, the customers came back and the stock price didn’t just return to normal. It went way up, fuelled by renewed shareholder confidence. Profits soared to over $50 million after plummeting $12.9 million, or 10 cents per share, in the immediate aftermath of a nationwide product recall linked to the deadly listeria bacterium. 

For taking reparative action and apologizing, the brand regained credibility. 

“I have had students work for Maple Leaf Foods and they all say they were not surprised,” Middleton says. “The apology spoke to the inside of the brand, its core values. But it went beyond that. It forced the company to take steps to ensure that nothing like that would ever happen again. Saying sorry made it stronger. It was not an admission of weakness. It was the other way around.”  

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