This is the body language (and words) you should use to deliver a meaningful apology

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Last year, a public fall out between former Community showrunner, Dan Harmon, and former Community staff writer, Megan Gantz, came to a refreshingly atypical close.

The abridged version:

The art of the meaningful apology

Below is a considered assemblage of expert tips on the best ways to both interpret and articulate an apology meaningfully.

According to a new study published by University of Queensland’s Matthew Hornsby and colleagues, a sincere plea for forgiveness is one earned with gesticulation and speech that are in sync with one another.

When a subject employs physical movements that demonstrate internal unrest, recipients are more likely to miss any other motives, if there are any-what Hornsby calls “embodying the remorse.” One of the reasons that the study’s authors believe this step is especially crucial for public figures is unlike our friends and loved ones, we have no way of knowing if something like blackface is out of character for a famous actor or if this is just the first time that they got caught. In other words, an apology doesn’t require as much dressing if the subject has procured some goodwill with the recipient.

The other factor working against a public apology is authenticity. There’s something synthetic about a scripted admission of guilt that turns listeners off.  In their review, the researchers noted that publicized displays of remorse from celebrities and politicians were better received with the accompaniment of physical gestures that belied the impression of spontaneity.  Via six studies, Hornsby and company concluded that people are more inclined to feel satisfied and believe an apology if it includes a little kneeling and or crying.

It’s all about the execution.  If done incorrectly, the perpetrator may actually lose favor with the recipient for attempting to prey on their weak disposition. More broadly both tactics stand a better chance at being favorably received when they are done face to face with victims as opposed to the other side of a screen from a press conference or pre-filmed public statement.

Psychology Today reports, “The findings showed that, regardless of nationality, participants rated the kneeling officials as being more genuinely remorseful, regardless of the public or private nature of the apology. However, participants did not regard the offenders as less likely to conduct the same act in the future, nor did they feel more likely to offer forgiveness, despite seeing the kneeling apologizer as more remorseful.”

That’s an important distinction. I think too much gets attributed to the act of merely accepting an apology. It’s possible to accept an apology, meaning you’re satisfied with the perpetrator’s demonstration of guilt and believe it while choosing not to forgive them. Dually, the acceptance of an apology doesn’t mean the work is complete.  On the subject, author Diane Gottsman, writes,  “Listening and showing forgiveness does not mean it’s OK. Showing appreciation for the effort doesn’t mean all is forgotten. You can say, ‘I appreciate your effort to acknowledge your mistake, but I need some time. I hope you will understand.’”

In her book, Modern Etiquette for a Better Life  Gottsman recontextualizes manners in a digital age. It should be noted that her advice on how to receive an apology isn’t tailored to accommodate the ears of the perpetrator but to make those that feel wronged the most productive during an inherently difficult process.  We should have all the necessary tools at our disposal before any final deliberation.

Grottsman added in HuffPost, “Watch carefully to decide if the words are sincere. Your intuition will generally tell you if the apology is well-intentioned. I think it’s a choice, and it’s not always appropriate to accept an apology but for yourself and your own peace of mind, you have to move on. Don’t continue to dwell on it, because if it’s eating you up, it’s toxic. It’s not being selfish. It’s about living your best life, which can’t happen when you’re filled with anger or hate.”

When the next public controversy gets dumped out onto the internet, try to be discerning about who gets to enjoy your ire. Do you actually care that Bill Maher thinks we should bring back fat shaming? Or can your offense be better reasoned with a person in your life that might agree?

Why the Harmon apology works

“The entire time I was the one writing her paychecks and in control of whether she stayed or went, and whether she felt good about herself or not, and said horrible things,” Harmon explained on his podcast. “Just treated her cruelly, pointedly. Things that I would never, ever, ever have done if she had been male, and if I had never had those feelings for her.

“And I moved on. I’ve never done it before and I will never do it again, but I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it if I had any respect for women. On a fundamental level, I was thinking about them as different creatures. I was thinking about the ones that I liked as having some special role in my life and I did it all by not thinking about it.” Gantz would go on to refer to this interaction as a masterwork in apologizing.

Ever since the unofficial launch of the accountability era, every reported lapse in this or that has been apostrophized with a debate on whether or not we should be appeased by the apology of the accused. Wherever your ethics lie regarding crimes of profanity, the sincerity of contrition is compromised if conflicting motives are detected. Genuine remorse and damage control read very differently.  Harmon’s apology doesn’t seem too concerned with public opinion or making sure he remains sympathetic.

He very specifically occasions what he did wrong,  its impact, and his objectives moving forward. That was enough for the person he hurt, so my thoughts are moot. That’s the nice thing about how this interaction played out. Typically when a public figure does something objectionable the circus eclipses the only relevant voices. It reinforces the idea that a successful apology is one that gets you back in good graces instead of one that is earned by an earnest understanding of the transgression at hand.

It’s sort of dumb for anyone but the victim of a thing to commit to reviewing how earnest a public apology reads or sounds because that implies that notoriety comes with additional moral expectations. I guess it sucks that the guy that made Firefly didn’t treat his wife better but maybe don’t elevate the guy that made Firefly to social deism. By conflating accountability with censorship, the fundamental point of forgiveness becomes corrupted.

Comedian Judy Gold recently meditated on this in a piece published by CNN on the back of the Shane Gillis firing from Saturday Night Live. “Shane Gillis has some great jokes in his stand-up act, and he should be able to perform on any stage that will have him, and if you want to hear how Gillis feels about all of this, you can tune into his podcast.  But let’s take a moment and put this whole episode into perspective. Shane Gillis was fired because after the boss finally did his due diligence, he changed his mind.”

There are other scenarios wherein surveying whether or not we should believe an apology is a practical necessity. A decision spouses must face after instances of infidelity, families with loved ones battling substance abuse, co-workers on the day to day for various aggressions and every other surrounding relationship to some degree of another.