You may or may not remember Happy Days, a relic from a long-ago time before Ron Howard was a big-macher director and Scott Baio was an intolerance-spewing sexist bigot. It was also a time before Henry Winkler was a best-selling children’s book author and/or Jean-Ralphio and Mona Lisa Saperstein’s indulgent dad on Parks & Rec.
On Happy Days, Arthur Fonzarelli, aka Fonzie, aka The Fonz, was a cool guy (until he jumped the shark) in a leather jacket. He said “aaaayyy” a lot. He was, however, unable to say several words, notably “wrong” (as in “I was wrong”) and “sorry” (as in “I’m sorry”).
On the show, this was played for laughs (we know this because of the laugh track) and being unable to say the words didn’t hurt Fonzie’s likability, because we knew he was a good guy, and we knew he actually knew he was wrong and was actually sorry.
But in real life, this does not play. When people append “this is not who I am” to a weak apology, it’s their way of claiming Fonzness — “I’m a hero, so the bad thing I said or did doesn’t diminish my hero status.” Wrong.
Apologies are hard because they shake our self-conception. We need to see ourselves as the good guy in our own story. But the acknowledgment of our essential imperfection is necessary if we’re really gonna own the apologies for bad things we do. (HOWEVER: saying “none of us is infallible” in the risible statement you have the gall to call an apology is an excuse, not ownership.) Apologizing means being vulnerable and deliberately opening yourself up to criticism. Which is not easy.
But it is necessary. What with our increased societal cluefulness about bad apologies, apologizing without really apologizing — using lots of sorry-ifs and passive voice and “to those who were offended”s and tortured justifications –means you’re still opening yourself up to criticism. Only now you’re being criticized for your crap apology as well as your original sin.
Let me be clear: I love Henry Winkler, who in real life seems like a total mensch as well as self-deprecating and funny. (And I love that he started his children’s book writing — those books were very popular in my kids’ elementary school library! — as a way to encourage kids with dyslexia; he has acknowledged that he did not read a whole book until he was 31 and nearly skipped an important audition because he was afraid of embarrassing himself by being unable to read the script.) And in real life he apologized for making a lousy TV show called Monty in 1994 — he called his own performance “cringeworthy” and didn’t blame anyone else, though it sounds like the show was a misbegotten ignominy all around.
Feel free to emulate Henry Winkler. Do not emulate the Fonz.