Why Some Apologies Fall Flat

When United Airlines had a paying customer forcibly removed from a flight so one of its own crew members could fly in his place, the news and accompanying video went viral. How could a 69-year-old doctor returning from vacation end up bloodied and being dragged off the aircraft? Why did the airline wait until all of the passengers had boarded before trying to find room for their crew members? Couldn’t they plan ahead? And was race a factor in the mistreatment of Dr. Dao? Can you imagine a 69-year-old white doctor being similarly dragged off the plane? Why didn’t United up the incentive offered to passengers to find volunteers who would give up their seats? Why not spend a little more to promote good will and so avoid public relations disaster and a potentially multimillion dollar lawsuit?

If the airline had only known the storm that would come, surely it would have handled the situation differently. They would have upped their incentive for volunteers. They would have sorted out their seating arrangements before all of the passengers were already on the plane. Hindsight is always 20/20, they say.

Only in this case hindsight wasn’t 20/20. At least not immediately.

The day after the incident, on Monday, April 10, CEO Oscar Munoz said publicly:

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. . . . I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. . . . We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.

But in an email to employees sent the same day, there was no sense of apology; instead, Mr. Munoz seemed to blame the passenger for being “disruptive and belligerent,” and he insisted that the airline had “followed established procedures.”

However, in the midst of mounting social media pressure and a falling share price, on Tuesday, April 11, Mr. Munoz tried again to apologize:

The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.

I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.

This third try was definitely better, and on Wednesday, April 12, United’s CEO appeared on Good Morning America for more damage control and yet another apology.

But it’s not only Mr. Munoz who has trouble apologizing. In the church and other Christian organizations, sometimes our apologies also fall flat.

One time I attended a conference where the guest speaker made some jokes with racial overtones that made some of the people at my table roll their eyes and made me feel so uncomfortable I thought of leaving. Some just shrugged it off since the speaker was young, inexperienced, and likely didn’t know any better. But I didn’t feel right talking about him without talking to him, so I decided to stay and approach him at the break.

After introducing myself and commenting positively about his presentation, I gently told him how I and others had felt about some of his opening remarks.

“I’m sorry if you felt that way,” he said.

“If???” I thought to myself. For my part, there was no “if,” so I had obviously spoken too gently. I patiently explained again why his comments had made me feel uncomfortable and why they had been a barrier to some of us in his audience that day.

“I’m sorry,” he finally responded, “I’ll keep that in mind and do better next time.”

“I appreciate that,” I said, and after we chatted a bit more, I returned to my table. “Now do you feel better?” asked one of my tablemates. And yes, actually I did.

So why do some apologies fall flat?

1. Lack of Sincerity

While the first United “apology” included the words “I apologize,” the letter to employees tried to justify the bad behaviour as “following established procedures.” But you can’t have it both ways. If you’re trying to justify your behaviour, then you’re not sorry. If you’re trying to apologize, then don’t try to justify bad behaviour.

A good apology means no cover up and no defensiveness. Instead of insisting that you’ve done nothing wrong, a sincere apology means expressing sincere regret.

2. Lack of Concern for the Person who has been Wronged

The first United “apology” began with a note of concern for how upsetting the situation was for “all of us here at United.” I understand that a CEO carries responsibility for an organization, but where was his sense of responsibility for the passenger forcibly removed from the plane? Why was there no mention of how upsetting this must have been for him and for his wife who had been on the plane with him? What about all of the other passengers who were disturbed by what had happened?

A good apology is more than damage control for your organization and your own position. A good apology demonstrates concern for those who have been wronged, and addresses the harm that has been done to them.

3. Evading Responsibility

In the first United “apology,” the corporate-speak of “re-accommodating” passengers seemed evasive and a refusal to take responsibility. In fact, the passenger was not simply being “re-accommodated”–he was being mistreated as Mr. Munoz finally admits in his third try. Nor was this a case of a “disruptive and belligerent” passenger needing to be removed from the aircraft. As United’s CEO finally acknowledged, “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

In the church and Christian organizations, church-speak can also come across as evasive and a refusal to take responsibility. A good apology means admitting the wrong. Not shifting responsibility to the other person by saying “if” you’ve been offended, or “if” you’ve felt wronged, but admitting what is. Not being defensive or blaming the other person or obscuring the truth with words like “re-accommodated” standing in for “mistreated” or “I should have been more pastoral” instead of “I should have treated you with respect.”

4. An Unwillingness to Change

In the letter to employees, United’s CEO said that “established procedures” had been followed, and gave no indication that the procedures themselves needed to be reviewed or changed in any way. Two days later, he said:

I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30.

So too in the church and other Christian organizations, a good apology includes a commitment to “fix what’s broken.” That means a personal commitment, like the young speaker who heard me out, and said, “I’ll do better next time.” And sometimes that will mean changing policies and procedures so that our institutions will be more functional and fair. As the prophet Micah insists, What does the Lord require of us but “to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8), and doing what’s right includes our churches and church institutions.

5. A Lack of Follow Through

I’ve heard some suggest that Dr Dao should receive a personal apology and free flights for the rest of his life. United Airlines will quite likely pay for his medical bills and more as the courts may well require some kind of compensation. But even apart from the legal issues, a good apology includes a willingness to make amends.

Some years ago, when I went to pick up my favourite shirt at the dry cleaner’s, it was nowhere to be found. They apologized, and said that I should buy another shirt and they would gladly reimburse me. Some might say that was their legal obligation, and perhaps that’s so, but I saw it rather that they understood my loss, and chose to share in it. That’s part of a good apology, and it changed the narrative so that today they’re still my dry cleaner, and not simply my former dry cleaner who lost my favourite shirt.

So too in the church and Christian organizations. If you’re sorry for breaking your colleague’s coffee mug, then replace it. If you’re sorry for losing a book you borrowed, then get another one. If you don’t know how to start making amends for whatever-it-is to the other person, just ask. Then do it. Such concrete actions may not fully replace the thing that was broken or lost–just like my replacement shirt wasn’t quite the same as my old favourite–but they can reinforce an apology and help change the narrative toward reconciliation.

So what do you think?
Have you been on the receiving end of an apology that wasn’t much of an apology?
Have you ever made an apology only to find it fell flat?
What makes for a good apology?


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Author: April Yamasaki

I currently serve as resident author with a liturgical worship community, write online and in print publications, and often speak in churches and other settings. Publications include On the Way with Jesus, Four Gifts, Sacred Pauses, and other books on Christian living. Websites: AprilYamasaki.com and WhenYouWorkfortheChurch.com.

2 thoughts

  1. I find it interesting to note that in your two examples (inexperienced guest speaker and CEO), it was the first (as well as Munoz’s second) apology which “fell flat.” At least Munoz got it right the third time. What is instructive is that in both instances, it was the repeated requests from the “wronged” side for a “proper” apology which helped create the better outcomes.

    1. Yes, very interesting. You make an excellent observation. I think there’s a tendency to think strictly in terms of offense and apology as a one-to-one matched set–so if I offend you, I offer an apology, and then we’re done. But real understanding often requires more conversation, more storytelling, more re-telling–Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission would be another example.

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