A brief history of the Apology

Apology - CortezApologizing is as old as mankind. The very first recorded apology took place in the Garden of Eden, when Eve apologized to Adam for goading him into taking a bite out of the apple. An ancient Greek translation of her apology roughly translates to: “Sorry about that, Adam. But you have to admit that I look pretty hot now that you realize I’m naked, right?” 

Anthropologists have found what they believe to be the earliest preserved record of an apology in 17,000-year-old cave paintings in Lascaux, France. One appears to depict a dejected male apologizing to his female companion for failing to bring back a hyena for dinner. Or it might have been a small mastodon. Hard to say which. The brush strokes were early impressionist.

Throughout history people have apologized for doing bad things and making egregious decisions. There is evidence that in ancient Egypt even the great Pharaoh Khufu may have issued an apology of sorts for causing the deaths of more than 20,000 men who gave their lives building his Great Pyramid. Hieroglyphics found on an interior chamber wall translate loosely to “Sorry for all of you who died making this cool burial shrine. In retrospect, I probably should have thought to suggest using pulleys and levers. Sorry I did not think of that till now. Oops.”

The Catholic Church is no stranger to the art of apology, having made a somewhat belated mea culpa confession over the infamous Spanish Inquisition, eventually decreeing that “it was all just a silly little misunderstanding. No hard feelings, right?”

Apology - Cruise shipThomas Jefferson apologized to blacks for not letting them out sooner, and in 1947 Major League Baseball finally apologized to blacks for not letting them in sooner.

The Captain of the Titanic famously apologized for driving too fast and hitting an iceberg, but said in his defense that “the manufacturer told me this ship was unsinkable. Besides, it was built by a bunch of Irishmen, so you can’t pin that on me.”

Even God has been known to apologize, most notably for his poorly thought-out design resulting in the duck-billed platypus. Years later, religious scholars still have no idea what God was thinking.

More recently, Donald Trump stunned everyone by publicly apologizing for… no, wait, that’s wrong. The Donald has never apologized for anything. We apologize for this error.

In the past century, the apology has continued to evolve. In the last fifty years, it has been frowned upon for business leaders to apologize for any mistake. When caught in a scandal – say, defrauding investors – the preferred method is to vehemently deny having done anything wrong, at least until sentencing, at which time it is generally recommended that the convicted executive issue something vaguely resembling a sincere-sounding apology, accompanied by crying and a plea for forgiveness.

Apology - Lance ArmstrongIn 21st century politics, the word apologize has actually been banned from the vocabulary of any politician. When a politician is found guilty of misusing public funds or getting caught in a tawdry sex scandal with an underage prostitute, they are required to deny they did anything wrong unless the accuser can produce a YouTube video showing them in the act.

In that event, they are obligated to conduct a hastily assembled press conference with their devoted spouse by their side, during which they proclaim how they have been humbled, learned a powerful life lesson (about not performing sex acts with an underage prostitute in front of a camera), explain how in the past 48 hours they have found God, and proceed to make a compelling argument about how their newfound faith makes them uniquely qualified to be your next Senator from the great state of Mississippi.

In doing our research for this article, we discovered that throughout history there have been essentially four acceptable types of apologies:

  • It’s not my fault: “I’m sorry about that. But it’s not my fault that I hit your car when I ran the stop light while driving drunk. How was I to know that the bartender wasn’t going to cut me off until my ninth vodka sour?”
  • I did not understand: “I’m sorry. I did not understand that the report was due today. When you said it needed to be completed no later than noon this Tuesday for the Shareholders’ Presentation, I thought you meant this Tuesday three weeks from now. You should have been more specific about which this Tuesday you were referring to.”
  • You did not understand: “I’m sorry you thought you were going to get a raise when I told you last month, ‘You are going to get a raise. What I meant was that eventually somebody is going to give you a raise for your decades of hard work. You wrongly assumed that the raise was going to come from me. That’s your fault for misinterpreting my words.”
  • Apology - Bernie MadoffI did the best I could: “I’m sorry I missed your high school graduation. But I did the best I could. I had to write a news story about the history of the apology, and I got distracted looking for photos of Lance Armstrong for the piece. I’ll be there next week. Bank on it.”

Some historians speculate that there may have been a fifth type of apology – one in which the person offered a sincere message of remorse, taking full responsibility for their harmful words or actions without making any excuses. Of course, some historians also believe there was once a magical kingdom called Camelot.

One significant change in the modern-day apology is that, thanks to social media and technology, it is now considered extremely bad form to issue an apology consisting of more than five words. Example: “Dude, sorry about shooting your —“. People simply don’t have the time to read lengthy apologies anymore – let alone write them. Among people under the age of 21, most apologies are expected to be no more than two words: My bad.

Well, that’s it. If you were hoping this article would be funnier, you have Humor Outcasts’ sincerest apology. But it’s not our fault. We did not understand. You did not understand. And we did the best we could.

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3 thoughts on “A brief history of the Apology”

  1. Donna, I agree with you 1000%. Human nature (and in particular, MALE nature) is to avoid taking responsibility for our own actions when we hurt or offend others. The two rarest words in the English language are “I’m sorry”.

  2. This was a great post and no apologies necessary Tim! I am always amazed how so many people cannot say the words, “I’m sorry.” Usually, they try to throw the blame on the person they hurt or on some unsuspecting dupe who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I blame this phenomena on people’s willingness to sue for anything. Never admit fault.

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