Amy Ebesu Hubbard, the study’s lead author and the communicology department chair at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, said the findings suggest that apologies function in several ways. “Showing remorse and seeking forgiveness are only part of the story,” she said. In some cases, an earlier apology served as “a launching pad” for more elaborate conversation, easing tensions between the couple and making it “safe to continue.”
But apologies also have a law of diminishing returns, she cautioned, and overdoing it can make each individual apology feel less sincere. “If you apologize too frequently to someone, it becomes background noise,” she said. “We notice things that stand out of a normative pattern. “
As the linguist Edwin Battistella wrote in his book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology, apologizing too easily can also come with social consequences—for example, many people argue that women are disadvantaged in the workplace by a tendency to apologize more frequently than men. (The comedian Amy Schumer’s “I’m sorry” skit captures the phenomenon well, depicting successful women over-apologizing at an “innovator’s conference” to the point of absurdity.)
A 2010 study added greater nuance to the gender stereotype, finding that while men apologized less than women, they also reported committing fewer offenses. “There was no gender difference in the proportion of offenses that prompted apologies,” the authors wrote, suggesting that “men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.” A separate study also found that men apologized more frequently to women than they did to other men.
Editors at Oxford Dictionaries recently added an entry for “non-apology,” defining it as a statement that takes the form of an apology but doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge responsibility or regret. Last month, Oxford also added an entry for “apology tour,” a series of public appearances by a well-known figure to express regret over a wrongdoing. Neither term had yet entered the cultural lexicon in August 1998, but both aptly describe Clinton’s trajectory, from the non-apology of that first televised address to the apology tour that followed.
On September 11, 1998, after several smaller-scale re-apologies, Clinton delivered what is considered his successful mea culpa for the Lewinsky affair before more than 100 religious leaders and his wife at the White House’s annual prayer breakfast. “I agree with those who have said that in my first statement after I testified that I was not contrite enough,” he told the audience. This time, his tone was somber and reflective, a far cry from the attitude he’d shown in his initial speech.
“Clinton’s legal training had a lot do with the first bad apology,” said Battistella, who describes apologies as a way of leveling power dynamics between two parties. “Conditional apologies do not work well,” Battistella said. “They are the Jiu-Jitsu of apologies: ‘I’m sorry if you were offended, what’s wrong with you?’”
And so like anyone else attempting to repair a relationship, the former president had to try again, with greater empathy and specificity. As Lazare often noted, while good apologies have the power to heal, bad ones only make things worse.