The Washington Post has an interesting article on the success or failure of apologies. Peter H. Kim, associate professor at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, writes about his research which indicates that whether or not apologies are accepted depends on large part on whether the underlying acts are perceived as intentional or unintentional. Thus apologies are more likely to be accepted if they can be cast as for acciental acts — including because the actor did not understand the norms that were being violated. He writes:
Take Anthony Weiner’s apology, for example. It may have fallen on deaf ears because people attributed his sexting as intentional behavior. Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s actions could have been perceived the same way, but they weren’t. Why? Before apologizing, he reframed the offense from a moral deficiency to a matter of social incompetence. (Schwarzenegger said he thought he was just being rowdy and playful, and had no idea the women would be offended.) By claiming a faulty social barometer, he changed the perception of the offense in the eyes of voters, making his apology more successful—at least in 2003.
This may be helpful to litigants, showing both the value of apology and the pointlessness of apology that fails to show how repetition would be avoided. Examples of those that at least appear to show lack of intent are: “I did not understand the Court’s order.” “I did not know that the kids had to be back by 5 PM.” (Interesting, this example underlines how important it is to explain the order in detail, including in all its implications, and to obtain confirmation of understanding, thereby making future “false” apologies less credible.)
For administrators, this distinction also underlines the value of transparency. If you explain how a mistake happened, people are much more likely to believe that you have analyzed it, and taken steps to avoid its repetition. After all, everyone makes mistakes, the search is not for people who never make mistakes, it is for people who fix them and go on to use the experience to prevent them. (Actually, since so much of the legal system is about blame, it may be that our culture is least well prepared for this approach on an institutional basis.)