Last week, Washington State Senator Maureen Walsh found herself in hot water. During a debate on a medical bill, she made an off-handed comment about nurses. She said that they “probably play cards for a considerable amount of the day.” After a fierce nationwide backlash, Walsh apologized.
This isn’t unusual these days. In any given week, I see a stream of apologies from politicians, newspaper editors and reporters, university professors and administrators, celebrities, and just about everyone else. The new trend seems to be: speak first – apologize later.
The problem is that people now speak without the fear of consequences. The belief is that if a statement is offensive or hurtful, it can be easily smoothed over with an apology. When people stop worry about consequences, they stop thinking through their actions.
Of course all of us, especially those in the spotlight, have lapses in judgement requiring an apology. That’s not new. The willingness to recognize a mistake and apologize for it is an admirable trait.
However, I don’t think that it’s about simple lapses in judgement anymore. In many cases, it’s about not even trying to apply judgement in the first place.
In our short attention span world, people are competing for attention. The goal has become to shock people, create a “viral” tweet, or have a comment picked up on the news. In this new world, success is often driven more by how sensational a statement is rather than how thoughtful or meaningful.
While once governed by rules of civility and thinking, our actions and statements now mimic reality shows. A statement is tossed out and the “audience” (i.e., the public) votes. If there is backlash, an apology is made and everyone moves on. So people are constantly pushing and “testing the waters” on what they can say. And, they are trying to one-up the last outrageous statement.
Apologies are no longer about making amends. They are a just a cheap, quick tool for abdicating accountability and responsibility for hurtful and thoughtless statements. As with much of our world, statements, ideas, and actions are now disposable. If people don’t like them, we simply wash them away with an “apology”.
Most of the time, the apology isn’t even an apology. There is the very popular (especially among politicians and celebrities), “I’m sorry to those who were offended by my remarks” which actually places the blame on those who were slighted. Then there is the “people misunderstood what I was trying to say” apology which again actually shifts the blame to the people who were hurt. Finally, there is the “I didn’t know” excuse. While that sounds like it takes more accountability, it really doesn’t. The “I didn’t know” excuse puts the blame on an invisible set of circumstances that caused the speaker to be unaware of a set of facts (before he or she chose to speak). Perhaps before speaking we should take the time to consider whether we know what we are talking about.
The reality is that in most cases the correct apology would be, “I am sorry I failed to think. I chose expediency and shock value over care and concern. It was easier to ignore the possible implications of my statement so I chose to do so.”
But, let’s face it, few people are willing to own up to that.
Apologies are no longer a tool to mend relationships, they are simply a tool to protect reputations.
While there is always room for an honest apology, in a civil world there is something far more important: thinking first.
If people would consider the impact, accuracy, and framing of their statements before saying them, there would be much less need for the constant barrage of after the fact apologies.
Civility isn’t just about apologizing for hurting others. It requires taking time, thought, and responsibility to avoid doing harm in the first place.
Brad Kolar is an Executive Consultant, Author, and Speaker with Avail Advisors. Avail helps leaders simplify their problems, decisions, data, and communication. Contact Brad at firstname.lastname@example.org.