Collage of Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Damon and Priti Patel
L to R: Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Damon and Priti Patel (Photos: Getty Images)


The rise of the nonpology

From Priti Patel’s humblebrag apology to Boris Johnson's "it wasn't me, it was them" – when did we start seeing apologising as a way to dodge blame instead of straight up saying sorry, asks Sali Hughes

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By Sali Hughes on

When was the last time someone apologised to you? I mean really apologised in a way that made you feel heard, understood and appreciated? Because it seems to me that genuine remorse and contrition is a lost art, with people either forgetting how to do it properly or deliberately swerving it in favour of convoluted linguistic tactics designed to save their own arses without having to accept guilt. It’s called The Nonpology and each day brings a fresh specimen…

The Humblebrag Apology

Adopted by exactly the kind of person who, when asked at job interviews to name their biggest fault, says, “Perfectionism.” And this week by Priti Patel. Answering allegations made by the BBC that the British international development secretary had accompanied an influential pro-Israeli Conservative lobbyist to undisclosed meetings in Israel this summer (including one with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu), Patel said: “In hindsight, I can see how my enthusiasm to engage in this way could be misread, and how meetings were set up and reported in a way which did not accord with the usual procedures. I am sorry for this and I apologise for it.” In other words: “I’m sorry I’m so committed to my public service that you mistook that impressive dedication for my being sneaky and underhand.” No, Priti, we really did not. So don’t apologise for it. Apologise for the underhandedness, then perhaps again for not saying sorry for it first time.

The Opening Address Apology

This seems like an apology at first, but is actually a tactical way of opening up negotiation and debate with enough goodwill in the bank to give the apologiser a head start. We’ve all done it. My children do it on a weekly basis. An everyday example might be something like, “I’m so sorry I didn’t text to say I wouldn’t be home before dinner,” said in the hope of still being allowed to go to the trampoline park tomorrow. There’s a fine line between this sort of tactical apology and the common and reasonable need to talk things over and thrash out a way forward. But, for everyone’s sake, the apology should be kept separate from any negotiations, never used as currency and only made under the assumption that no mercy will be shown, nor any allowances made. Own it. Accept the consequences. Anything more is a bonus.

The “I’m fine – it’s the world that’s wrong” Apology

Classically deployed by abusive partners who think monogamy is the preserve of dreary conformists, or that those who object to his or her violence simply don’t want to understand what the abused partner is “really like behind closed doors”. And, fittingly enough, by fallen Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, who cut straight to the chase by opening his official “apology” with: “I came of age in the 60s and 70s, when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” It was a clear attempt to mitigate the accusations against him but, within one sentence, the alleged rapist and serial abuser had negated every last word thereafter (not that they were substantively more contrite), and revealed almost as much about himself as the brave women recounting horrific details of their encounters with him. Incidentally, sexual assault and rape were very much illegal in the 60s and 70s. Most men managed to live perfectly well within the law.

This seems like an apology at first, but is actually a tactical way of opening up negotiation and debate with enough goodwill in the bank to give the apologiser a head start

The Hidden Apology

A classic device of the tabloid newspaper. Splash the shocking, rabble-rousing story across the front page, then admit it was balls in a thumbnail on page nine, several months after substantial damage has been caused to the subject’s life. It’s the media equivalent of a drunk friend getting off with your husband, then dropping you a remorseful text after the divorce. A recent and typical example came in late October, when The Telegraph ran on its front page the story of black Cambridge student, Lola Olufemi, who had “forced” her English department to replace all white authors with those of colour. Except it wasn’t true (she’d merely written an open letter containing recommendations for increased diversity, which was signed by 100 fellow students), so the paper later issued a correction that could conceivably be concealed by a dropped crumb of toast.

The “It’s not me – it’s you” Apology

The nonpology of choice for politicians, call centres and passive-aggressives everywhere. In its classic form, it begins with, “I’m sorry you feel that way…”, thus ensuring the receiver understands that the apology is being made purely to calm and appease an oversensitive hysteric, and not born from any objective understanding of wrongdoing. Sneakier still is its use without ever mentioning or addressing the victim directly, thus negating their individual pain. “I apologise if my comments offended some people,” were essentially the words of Matt Damon, who had insulted and condescended African-American producer Effie Brown during a 2015 broadcast about diversity in Hollywood. It’s more contortion than contrition and, crucially, keeps the litigation lawyers happy, if not the wronged party.

The “LOOK! OVER THERE!” Apology

Among the most jaw-dropping of these was last month, when Kevin Spacey responded to allegations made by actor Anthony Rapp, who had accused Spacey in a BuzzFeed interview of sexually assaulting and consequently traumatising him at a New York party in 1986, when Rapp was just 14. In Spacey’s official statement, he began by saying he was drunk and inappropriate, then decided this was exactly the right moment to finally come out of the closet as a gay man, after decades of refusing to discuss his sexuality. To many of us, Spacey’s coming out in relation to sexual assault was a clumsy and offensive attempt to pull focus on to something unrelated and benign, and to spin the story from “alleged paedophile and sexual predator” to “brave, sensitive gay man”, aligning the two as though they are even distant cousins and effectively throwing the entire LGBTQ+ community under a bus.

The “It’s not me – it’s them” Apology

“I’m sorry but they made me do it”, “I’m sorry but the lads got me pissed”, “I’m sorry but my accountant dodged the tax without my knowledge”, “I’m sorry but I was acting within the loopholes of the law” and on and on and on. This apologiser may present as some wronged, courageous and magnanimous character, a person who’ll take the fall for the sins of others, but his INMIT nonpology is essentially saying “It was everyone else’s fault and it’s not fair, but I really need you to like me again and so I’ll do the bare minumum”. See Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s nonpology only this week, for wrongly stating that imprisoned British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been training journalists in Iran and consequently, that comment being presented as new evidence against her by the Iranian government. Johnson, who has all the diplomacy of a hand dryer, is sorry, he says, if his words were “so taken out of context” as “to cause any kind of anxiety” (to her family). A double whammy, then – blame those who twisted his words and blame those who overreacted to their misinterpretation. Blame everyone but Boris, who is desperately sorry for nothing. Including that unfortunate £350 million per week back to the NHS Brexit campaign promise. That was probably the sign writer’s fault.

The Actual Apology

“I’m sorry. It was wrong. I was a dick. I have either deliberately or thoughtlessly caused you or others pain / difficulty / mistrust and I really, really wish I hadn’t. I know it wasn’t okay, and am taking steps to ensure I never do it again. I hope you will forgive me”.

See - it’s not so hard. Just say it and mean it. Fauxpologists can eat my shorts. And if that offends you - well, I’m sorry you feel that way. I came of age in the 80s, okay?


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L to R: Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Damon and Priti Patel (Photos: Getty Images)
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