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Written By: Sandy Bjorgen, IMPROV-able Results ~ 1/12/2023


The chancellor of the university began his commencement speech with an impromptu “joke.” He laughed heartily and looked around at colleagues behind him on the platform to share the laugh. The next day, when people had complained about his “racist” remarks, he delivered this “apology”:

“I made a comment that was offensive and insensitive. I am truly sorry for my unplanned, off-the-cuff response to another speaker, as my words have caused confusion, pain, and anger … We are all human. I made a mistake, and I assure you I did not intend to be hurtful, and my comments do not reflect my personal or our institutional values.”

Clearly, he thought his impromptu comment was funny. Whether he admits it or not, what he spontaneously said had to reflect his mindset and personal values. Only after being called on this, did he feel the need to backtrack, save face, and issue a public apology. However, this is a non-apology. It’s a boiler plate apology that can be used in any situation – whether the speaker is at fault or not. There is nothing in it to indicate that he truly understands the specific complaint and is ready to take responsibility for being inappropriate. It’s designed to make everyone get off of his case and move on.

His words come across as “I’m sorry YOU misunderstood me and my intentions.” This essentially blames others for overreaction to harmless comments. He does not address the fact that he mocked people that speak a particular language, and he does not show that he understands the pain they have long felt for being mocked. He thinks he should get a pass: we are all human and make mistakes and I didn’t intend to be hurtful. He thinks this too will help get him off the hook: “my comments do not reflect my personal or our institutional values.” Whose values do they reflect? He made the remarks and enjoyed them. The university is outraged because this was also a poor reflection on its own values and they want him reprimanded and/or gone.

Apologizing isn’t easy. It can be hard to admit that you should have done something differently and deliver an apology that is credible and sincere. This is not about being right and making YOU feel better. Nor is it about agreeing with the other perspective. It’s not a contest.

This is your opportunity to use empathy: to show clearly that you understand their feelings and your part. You must be able to restate what you did and the resulting reactions. Your ability to express understanding and regret is an essential step in repairing the rift.

Here is an example of a better apology: “I made fun of people’s accents and gave no thought to what it felt like to those who had been on the receiving end of such mockery for years. My imitation was disrespectful and hurtful. I am sorry for my unthinking lack of sensitivity. I apologize to everyone who has rightly expected a higher standard of behavior from me in representing the university and my own character.”

Don’t make excuses, complain, discount others’ feelings. You can’t force others to forgive you. If they do, fine. Whatever feedback they continue to throw your way, avoid taking offense or acting self-satisfied. View feedback as a gift and a learning experience. That is, unwrap it and look for what you can gain. Be grateful for what others are willing to share with you. They may express themselves in angry, even hurtful ways. That is no excuse for you to do the same.

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Sandy Bjorgen
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