When the only thing left to say is 'I'm sorry'

Book cover

KAI RYSSDAL: New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer put another notch in his belt today. He and the attorney general of Connecticut announced a $20 million settlement with The Hartford. The financial services company was accused of fraudulent sales practices. Part of the settlement includes a public apology. It's something of a ritual when companies are caught misbehaving. Paul Slansky knows a thing or two about apologies. He's just co-written a book of them. It's called "My Bad."


PAUL SLANSKY: I like Lee Iaccoca having to apologize for testing their cars without the odometers connected. And then the cars that were damaged in test-driving they were selling as new. And he said, his apology was, "Our big concern was for our customers. The people who had enough faith in Chrysler to buy a vehicle from us. We did do something to have them question their faith in us. Did we screw up? You bet we did."

RYSSDAL: Are these apologies supposed to make everything better?

SLANSKY: Well, it's kind of a cleansing ritual that you have in public these days, where somebody has to apologize after they've been caught at something. I feel it's just like . . . really, the apologies for the most part are, "I'm sorry I got caught." They don't really feel sincere, for the most part. In the business world, they seem to be much more necessary in a way . . . because in the business world it can really hurt your public image.

For example, we had . . . Taco Bell had an incident where they fired an employee. I think it was in Portland, Oregon. They fired the employee because she left the store to help somebody who was injured in the street.

RYSSDAL: And they fired her . . .

SLANSKY: And they fired her for it. But then, of course, they had to rehire her because the publicity was not good on that.

RYSSDAL: It's funny. We've developed kind of a shorthand for a quick apology and you picked it for the title of the book. You know, you do something wrong, either in the office, or in life or whatever and you say, "Oh, wow. My bad. Sorry."

SLANSKY: I know. It's the most casual tossing off of the apology. You know, when you're a kid, you're raised that you should be apologizing sincerely. But in the public sphere, the apologies are just more unbelievable, I guess.

RYSSDAL: Funny, though, that a lot of the people who are in some real trouble these days for things they may or may not have done have not yet said, I'm sorry. I'm thinking of Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling from Enron.

SLANSKY: No, a lot of people never apologize. It's sort of too bad. The book itself is, in addition to being a collection of public apologies, it's a collection of great, bad behavior that needed apologies. And there's a lot of bad behavior that doesn't get to be in this book because those people just didn't apologize.

RYSSDAL: So, is there a formula, then, for these apologies?

SLANSKY: Well, there are certain locutions that I think get used very often. There is the "If I offended anyone" phrase. Which is such a good one because it really almost implies that the listener was really at fault, or at least partially at fault. And then there is "No offense was intended."

RYSSDAL: But apologies generally work.

SLANKSY: Oh, they definitely work. Because, again, they're not required to be sincere. They're not required to really convince anyone. It's just like, OK, I did it. Once you apologize, the story goes away. That really is the thing that ends it.

RYSSDAL: Paul Slansky co-wrote "My Bad: 25 Years of Public Apologies," with Arleen Sorkin

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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