04 July 2014

I'm Sorry....Who are you?

So they apologized for the "secret psychological experiment" they ran on several hundred thousand Facebook users.

Which got me to thinking about apologies and forgiveness.

There's the apology your roommate makes after eating the last piece of quiche which you were actually saving for yourself. The two of you are standing in the kitchen about six feet away from each other. And you say, "Oh, that's OK. I'll get over it."

There's the apology you make when you show up 40 minutes late for your friend's wedding rehearsal. You dash into the church. You're panting (you sprinted from the parking lot). Your hair is standing all over your head and you feel like the worst friend ever, especially because you don't even have a good excuse. "God, I am soooooooo sorry. I just...." Your friend shoots a fiery look and tosses her head toward your assigned spot in line.

You are good friends. You've known each other a long time and been through some stuff together. You'll meet for lunch tomorrow like you always do on first Fridays and she'll forgive you. She'll give you some grief about "What is it with you?" but you'll laugh together before you leave the cafe and the whole thing will be a funny story before the year is up. You both know it's not the last time you'll pull a stunt like that.

In both cases, neither the apology or the forgiveness are much needed. Both parties recognized the "oops" when it happened, both wish it hadn't happened and neither will have difficulty recovering and moving on from the "injury" -- which is really too strong a word.

It works this way sometimes between intimate friends.

More serious strains pose complicated challenges to intimate friendship. Your friend steals money from you or betrays your confidence, for example. What if s/he doesn't offer an apology? Do you demand one?

What if s/he apologizes?  Is that enough? Can you pick up the pieces and move on?

The Facebook apology, however, doesn't concern a misstep between intimate friends. Headlines blare "Facebook Apologizes for Secret Experiment" but there is not, to my knowledge, a living person named "Facebook" so who actually apologized and for what and to whom?

An early report, published soon after news of the "secret experiment" broke, said Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg offered "something of an apology."
“This was part of ongoing research companies do to test different products, and that was what it was; it was poorly communicated,” Sandberg said during a meeting with potential advertisers in India... “And for that communication we apologize. We never meant to upset you.”
The article (on the Time.com website) goes on to call Sandberg's remarks "a variant on the classic corporate non-apology: Sorry if we upset you." Apparently, Facebook, like the friend who came late to the wedding rehearsal above, has a history of pulling stunts that offend one or another million of their users. An article at the LA Times site lists some of the more notorious, including Facebook's deft non-apologetic apologies.
[The "non-apologetic apology" reminded me of Bill Clinton's non-apology about the Lewinsky "thing"....

I remember watching this live at the time. I'd forgotten he never actually apologizes in this speech. He evokes a sorta apologetic zeitgeist but never actually apologizes or asks forgiveness of anyone under the sound of his voice that night.]

When I hear people demanding that a corporate entity or  institution or club make a public apology

or complaining about the insincerity of a corporate apology

I feel like I've stumbled onto a Train to Crazyville. 

What would an acceptable apology even sound like? Does it require a face or is a well-written letter signed "Company Name" adequate? If a face is needed, should it be the COO or the CEO or the entire Board of Directors chanting mea culpa like a Greek chorus? 

Corporations are not intimate friends. We allow them to get pretty close to us but they aren't friends. I think attempting to assess or understand our relationships with/to/under/? corporate entities by the same standards that guide our relationships with humans is a mistake. 

I don't know completely or exactly what the standard should be, but parsing and scrutinizing the latest non-apologetic apology issued by someone we don't know who is acting as spokesperson for Acme Company for getting caught doing something they'll probably do again and have been doing for years behind those curtains so big we think they're the night sky? 


In 2005 I sat for a few days with Cindy Sheehan and a fluctuating number of other concerned Americans at Camp Casey--a fluid tent city erected at the gate to George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Cindy wanted to talk to then-President Bush about her son who was killed in the Iraq War. She sought an explanation or apology. Bush never visited the encampment while I was there but I understood the logic of whatever drove Cindy in those days. Something in her that believed apology and forgiveness require proximity.