In this chapter, Heinrichs will discuss how people should act when they’re in the wrong, and argue that there are times when people should apologize, and times when they shouldn’t.
In a sense, an apology is a kind of argument; therefore, readers could learn a lot about apologizing by studying the art of rhetoric.
Years ago, Heinrichs made a mistake: he accidentally put Mount St. Helens in the wrong state in a magazine story. He apologized to his boss, and then offered to send a small plastic volcano to the governor of Washington, thanking her for letting Oregon “borrow” Mount St. Helens. A few weeks later, Heinrichs got a nice note back from the governor, with a photograph of her holding up the magazine and the plastic volcano. A few months later, when Mount St. Helens exploded, Heinrichs’s boss sent him to do a cover story on the eruption.
Heinrichs already discusses this blunder in a previous chapter; here, however, he shows how he was able to finesse his error into a victory—by building up a solid relationship with the governor, he put himself in a good position when the time came to cover the Mount Saint Helens eruption.
As Heinrichs’ behavior with to the governor shows, there are a few steps to apologizing: 1) Set your goals (in Heinrichs’ case, protecting his job); 2) Be first with the news (e.g., breaking the news to his boss, not the other way around); 3) Switch to the future (e.g., proposing the plastic volcano backup plan to his boss) ; 4) Enhance your ethos (in this case, Heinrichs using the apology to make himself seem mature and even to build a connection with the Washington governor).
Apologies incorporate many of the rhetorical lessons that Heinrichs has been discussing: the difference between deliberative and demonstrative rhetoric, the importance of establishing one’s practical wisdom and general character, controlling the timing and rhythm of the conversation, etc. Everyone has to apologize sooner or later, but few people know how to do it correctly.
Another important aspect of apologizing is adaptation. Once, Heinrichs gave a presentation for which the videos weren’t playing properly, so he got people in the audience to act out the content that was supposed to be shown in the videos. In doing so, he convinced his audience that, even if he wasn’t the most tech-savvy person, he knew how to think on his feet. An apology is also an opportunity to show disinterest. When Southwest Airlines accidentally overbooked its flights, it sent emails stressing that it was making its mistake the number-one priority, emphasizing its commitment to its customers. Another important fact about apologizing: anger comes from belittlement. Too often, people try to apologize by acting as if their mistake wasn’t a big deal and, by extension, as if their audience’s problems don’t matter. This can backfire and make the audience feel belittled and angry.
As with the Mount Saint Helens story, Heinrichs is able to here convert his defeat into a victory; he makes himself seem like a quick, savvy thinker, even if his audience doesn’t think much of his technological skills. As with most other forms of persuasion, apologizing hinges on establishing a strong connection between the persuader and the audience; i.e., convincing the audience that the persuader is invested in their happiness and well-being. It would be a big mistake to “apologize” by minimizing the error, because doing so runs the risk of belittling the audience, too.
Sometimes, the best way to apologize is to not apologize at all. The problem with apologies is that they involve the speaker belittling themselves without necessarily “enlarging” their audience—i.e., failing to make the audience feel any less angry. In the case of Heinrichs’ “apology” to his boss, Heinrichs wasn’t truly apologizing at all—he was emphasizing his own high standards for success. A plan for fixing the situation, emphasizing the speaker’s talent, will often be more effective than a heartfelt apology.
Most people are taught that apologies are inherently good and polite. Heinrichs, however, maintains that some apologies aren’t particularly “good” at all, in the sense that they accomplish nothing and just create more resentment. In a way, Heinrichs’ distaste for apologizing reinforces his preference for deliberative rhetoric over demonstrative and forensic rhetoric—he’d rather talk about concrete solutions than wallow in values or blame.
Consider the 2012 NFL incident during which referees demanded more money. Instead of negotiating, the NFL fired all its referees and brought in replacements, who then proceeded to do a poor job of calling the games. The head of the NFL, Roger Goodell, re-hired all referees, and said that he looked forward to “having the finest officials in sports back on the field.” Although Goodell was widely criticized for not apologizing, Heinrichs argues that he did his job well by focusing on the goal—keeping his job and preserving the institution of the NFL. On the other hand, too many people praised Tim Cook for apologizing when the iPhone 5 was shown to have a bad map app. Instead of praising Apple’s usual high standards, promising that his employees were working hard to fix the error, and showing off his engineers’ practical wisdom, Cook just emphasized that he and his team were “extremely sorry.” People praised Cook for his humility, and contrasted his manner with that of the famously arrogant and single-minded Steve Jobs. However, it’s important to keep in mind that Cook’s apology didn’t stop Apple stock prices from falling, and may have contributed to the plunge.
Heinrichs offers two more examples to support his argument: Goodell’s poorly received non-apology to his referees, and Tim Cooks’ apology on behalf of Apple. Because Heinrichs chooses these examples to argue that apologies aren’t always effective, his point gets a little muddled. For example, he suggests that Cook’s apology was a failure, suggesting that it may have contributed to the plummeting value of Apple stocks. However, Heinrichs has no proof that Cook’s apology had anything to do with Apple’s plummeting stocks (indeed, his argument seems a little like a post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy!). In general, Heinrichs has no concrete proof either that Goodell’s non-apology was successful or that Cook’s apology was unsuccessful, arguably making his argument less convincing than it could be.
Heinrichs recalls Dorothy Jr. as a young girl. Dorothy Jr. refused to apologize when she did anything wrong, so Heinrichs hit upon the idea of teaching his daughter to “make good,” rather than to apologize. Heinrichs maintains that learning such a skill is far more valuable than learning how to apologize: making good involves a concrete solution to a problem, while apologizing just involves reliving the original problem. One might object that apologizing is a moral good; in response, Heinrichs insists that using rhetoric is a far better way to solve the problem.
The crux of Heinrichs’ point is that apologies illogically dwell on the past or get bogged down in a discussion of values; it’s always more productive to move past blame and discuss concrete solutions to the problem. Apologizing may or may not be the “right” thing to do; however, discussing solutions will always be the more effective thing to do.