The Art of Apologies, Saying I’m Sorry Better than Will Smith Did

I’m still waiting to hear Will Smith apologize for slapping comedian Chris Rock on stage with their peers looking on and millions of mortified, at-home viewers and the Internet watching too.

Will Smith accepts the award for Best Actor at THE 94TH ACADEMY AWARDS Sunday, March 27, 2022

I’d bet if you asked #teamwill, they’d suggest he’s already accepted as much accountability as the situation requires. Pointing to his bleary-eyed, award acceptance speech apology and laconic, Instagram statement the following day, they could argue, and you might agree, that he’s met the mea culpa bar and that it’s time to move on.

Perhaps the time has come to forge ahead and allow this event to occupy less space in our collective rearview mirror. It could be that Smith’s wife and object of his campaign, Jada Pinkett-Smith, is correct – time exists now to heal. But, how do the offended heal when the apology is so spiritless, self-serving and devoid of much less passion than that open hand across Rock’s cheek?

That’s not to suggest Smith is insincere and not genuinely embarrassed by what happened and where he now finds himself. Nevertheless, while embarrassment and remorse are sometimes neighbors, they often enough live blocks apart or even in entirely different cities.

Enough of what Smith has written and said thus far suggests he may well be sorry, but it might still be a while before he finds remorse and understanding waiting for him at gate B5.

In the meantime, Smith has conducted a clinic on how not to say sorry. And for those of us seeking to become better versions of ourselves, this is a case study on the many ways apologies can come up short or flat out fail.

Nothing so far in any of Smith’s public statements effectively expresses empathy and understanding. There’s no recognition of his actions’ consequences

Apologizing to the Wrong Person
Intuitively, Will Smith understood on Oscar night that he needed to apologize right there in front of the audience that witnessed him lose control and strike a man. It seems, though, that he couldn’t get his inner Wills to agree on who deserved his heartfelt apology.

You’d expect to find the individual who he assaulted and publicly humiliated at the top of Smith’s list. Instead, he “apologize[d] to the Academy; to all [his] fellow nominees,” but not that night to Rock who shortly before landed on the losing end of Smith’s malicious misdemeanor.

In fact, Smith directed his initial apology to far too sparse a list of people. Absent were apologies to his mother, his children, the assembled guests, the viewers at home and fans who he selfishly dragged into his drama. Those apologies came a day later. But mostly that night, he missed the opportunity to beg the pardon of the man he brazenly bitch slapped right when and where the slapping occurred.

Lack of Contemplation
Thoughtful apologies express not only regret but contemplation. In addition to admitting a fault, the most severe offenses call for some exploration of what went wrong and a promise to make things right. Some offenses are so egregious, they demand that the offender digest the moment and demonstrate that he gets the big picture.

Smith doesn’t seem yet to get it, mitigating and downplaying along the way. In his Instagram statement, he acknowledges, “I deeply regret that my behavior has stained what has been an otherwise gorgeous journey for all of us.” That’s like saying the flight was pleasant right up until the plane crashed at the edge of the runway. It overlooks how the crash trumps the in-flight movie and beautiful scenery over the Alps.

Nothing so far in any of Smith’s public statements effectively expresses empathy and understanding. There’s no recognition of his actions’ consequences – how this could influence impressionable children to consider violence as an option; how he feeds paternalism and robs women of agency; how he has emboldened audience members at local comedy clubs, increasing the possibility someone might follow his example and attack comic friends of his.

Missing is a sufficient admonition to would-be disciples – something akin to the “Don’t try this at home, kids, I’m a trained a-hole.”

Excuse Me, Excuse Me Not
Aggrieved and violated parties deserve excuse-free apologies. Truly effective apologies don’t linger on explanations or seek to excuse wrongdoing. Indeed, sometimes an explanation only serves to make matters worse.

Explaining that you wouldn’t have rear-ended me if your Big Gulp hadn’t slipped from your hand doesn’t nudge me any closer to a forgiving spirit. It might just further enrage me that you were dining and driving at an active intersection.

Apologies should stand or fall on their own merits.

Likewise, justifications, which are no more than excuses hopped up on steroids, have no place in an apology.

“My behavior at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable,” Smith admits in his written statement. In the next breath, however, he moves to justify losing it onstage. “Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally.”

No, Will, you reacted physically! You first laughed at the joke, then attacked. You sucka-slapped a defenseless man while he was on his grind.

Smith trusts that understanding the why of his mistake will incline you to excuse the what of his misdeed. Put yourself in my shoes, what would you do if someone made your wife’s eyes roll around in her head?

But, seeing a thing from someone’s point of view very rarely if ever justifies a socially unacceptable or criminal thing. And any attempt at slyly framing wrong things as right rings somehow more hollow than apologetic.

Apology by Proxy
Implicating others in your misdeed is perhaps one of the most craven missteps in apologies gone awry. That’s when the apologizer aligns his bad behavior with the presumed bad deeds of some uninvolved third party.

Observe how Smith employs Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena Williams, portrayed by Smith in King Richard ­– the role for which Smith won the Best Actor award.

“Art imitates life,” Smith implied. “I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams.”

Wrong again. You look like Will Smith. Richard Williams looks like Richard Williams. And merely playing him on the big screen doesn’t grant you license to attach your wrongdoing to previous iterations of him. You were not channeling Richard Williams when you hit Chris Rock.

Any mention of Williams is poorly executed misdirection and not at all apologetic. Deflection, party of one?

Self Service
Serving one’s self is best left for QuikTrip and out of apologies. Attempts to recast something less-than-admirable as an act of nobility are about the worst way to demonstrate self-awareness and accept accountability.

“I am being called on in my life to love people, and to protect people and to be a river to my people,” Smith proudly proclaimed during his acceptance speech.”

Those are nice words, but they’re profoundly out of sync with your very unloving display minutes before. Smacking someone’s face is not a loving act. Pretending that we didn’t all just see a less lovable you is obtuse. And ignoring a transgression doesn’t build a bridge to healing.

Passing this off as some brave act of protection, claiming that “love will make you do crazy things,” sounds much more like every wife-beater and not a guy who wants people to take his apology seriously.

This is the worst form of justification.

How to Get it Right
Let’s not pretend it’s easy to get apologies right. Accounting for one’s actions requires a blend of maturity and vulnerability that proves often elusive during the most trying moments, which, incidentally, are the exact times that also demand a contrite heart.

It takes a certain self-awareness and humility to propel the best apologies. Far too often those character traits are unavailable or are in short supply when we need them most – if we possess them at all.

Apologies by their very nature are complicated, but they aren’t impossible. Here are some ways to bring you closer to getting them right.

  1. Be sincere. To reach the heart, you must speak from the heart. Hearts speak their own language and the right spirit can go a long way in conveying your true intentions. Express deep regrets and mean it.

  2. Accept forgiveness, but don’t expect it. Be grateful and gracious when someone accepts your apology, but don’t go off if they should choose not to. Forgiveness, while a proper even biblical pathway, is nothing to feel entitled to. When someone is ready to forgive, they will on their own.

  3. Assume a remorseful posture. Your demeanor afterward should reflect the disruption’s seriousness. Seeing you clutching your Oscar while getting jiggy with it at an after-party seems tone-deaf, unaffected and indifferent not remorseful.

  4. Do something to make restitution when appropriate. Offer some gesture that elevates your apology beyond mere words.

  5. Apologize at the proper time. Most often, the right time to say you’re sorry is in the immediate moment you realize you’ve screwed up. This especially is true when you do so publicly. Mistreating someone in public, then apologizing in private or barely publicly enough to go on record is nearly equal to no apology at all.

Sometimes, however, delaying an apology is the right approach. Certain supercharged events require a cooling-off period and some reflection time to say you’re sorry with appropriate clarity, conviction, understanding and passion.

At the Oscars, Smith might’ve been better served by briefly communicating his sincere regret to everyone present that evening, especially Chris Rock. He might’ve said: I hope that Chris and you can forgive me and grant me grace and space to reflect on my behavior tonight, gather my thoughts and say the right things in the right way soon.

Will Smith got it wrong Oscar night. His apology came up short. Mentioning Rock by name the next day, he improved. Still, the sum of his apologies appears empty, lacking and insufficient.

But, that need not be a stopping point. There’s room still for recovery and healing if that’s his true intention. The opportunity still is out there to say and do those things befitting a best actor and fresh prince.

-Jonathan Clarke
March 31, 2022

©Copyright, March 2022, Jonathan Clarke, All Rights Reserved

Jonathan Clarke is a writer and communications expert with more than 30 years of experience in journalism, broadcast news and public relations.

The Undecided

Following last night’s brawl disguised as a debate, I’m proposing election reform. Specifically, I propose that all UNDECIDED VOTERS be disqualified from voting in the 2020 election. If you still are undecided following last night’s debacle, clearly you lack the mental acuity to cast a vote for President of the United States.

Chaotic moments from first 2020 presidential debate.
Courtesy CNN

The mere fact that you approached the debates expecting to find that last nth of data that could nudge you off the precipice and into that verboten space the rest of us call commitment proves – as Jack Nicholson might bark – YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE VOTE!!!

Going into the debates at this point expecting they’ll help you determine who best deserves to lead the nation the next four years, means you haven’t been paying attention these past four years. It means you’re virtually starting from scratch.

You’re starting from ground zero. You’re effectively letting every single Donald Trump eff-up since January 20, 2017 slide. You haven’t been paying attention, or, despite year after year of this administration, you’ve simply chosen to ignore his lying tongue and disbelieve your lying eyes.
What possibly could Donald Trump have said in last night’s debate or say in either of the next two debates to sway your opinion of his job performance thus far?

Have you so quickly forgotten “good people on both sides?” Have you forgotten the Mueller Report and its myriad details of alleged obstruction of justice, corruption, collusion and potentially impeachable misdeeds? Have you forgotten he actually was impeached for strong-arming a nation and withholding our tax dollars for his own political purposes? Have you forgotten him calling Mexicans rapists? Have you forgotten s-hole countries? Have you missed how he’s violated the emoluments clause? Have you ignored his countless money grabs? Have you forgotten he’s an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal case? Have you simply forgotten the literally thousands of lies he’s daily told since taking office — including him lying about the severity of the coronavirus?

Speaking of the coronavirus, have you missed these past six months how he’s botched every minute of the pandemic? Have you been oblivious to the 200,000 Americans who’ve died while he’s obfuscated, and gaslighted, and misled, and done nothing, and lacked empathy, and mocked masks and his own administration’s medical guidance and pressured states to reopen too soon simply to advantage him?

And not just the pandemic: Have you watched him stoke racial tensions in the wake of George Floyd’s murder? Have you approved of him using law enforcement and the military to squelch protests? Have you seen him refer to BLM protesters as terrorists but have no same such disgust for white militia and supremacists?

Have you watched him kowtow to Putin? Did you miss that he compromised our fighting forces’ security abroad by saying not a single word about Russia placing bounties on the heads of American military men and women in Afghanistan? Of course, that shouldn’t come as a surprise since we’ve also learned — and apparently, you’ve forgotten or dismissed — that he’s called folks who serve in the military “losers” and “suckers.”
I suppose if I were to dismiss all of that, I too could go into the debating season pretending that Trump and Biden are on equal footing. I could buy into some false equivalency of them both being out of hand last night talking over and insulting each other.

I guess if I too turn a blind eye to the death, destruction of norms — to the it-is-what-it-is-ism — I, like you, could be somehow undecided. But, I’ve seen too much to wallow in final hour indecision.

Truth is you’re not so undecided either. You’ve simply decided none of the chaos matters.

(c) Copyright 2020, Jonathan Clarke, All Rights Reserved

Sunday with Annie Mae

My grandmother, Annie Mae Jones, and I would sing around the house. I remember this in technicolor even while so many other memories of her fade now to washed-out grays and blues. I remember watching the soap opera, Another World together. I remember us watching the games shows, Concentration and Jeopardy with Art Fleming. And I remember the two of us singing. I credit those song-filled afternoons with tuning my ear and shaping my harmonizing skills.

Whether we used a hymnal or not evades my report, although a hymnal most definitely would’ve been available if needed. The frayed, red, Baptist Hymnal was a fixture in the apartment she shared with my aunts, along with a trusty King James and some albums—James Cleveland and Mahalia Jackson no doubt.

As I think more on it, I can’t imagine that Sweetie and I — that’s what we called my grandmother— would have needed a hymnal when the songs of the faithful were planted, watered and fertilized Sunday after Sunday in God’s House.

Sweetie would arrive Sunday mornings at Brooklyn’s Bethany Baptist Church and slowly ascend the building’s stone steps. I’d escort her into the sanctuary, down the far right aisle and over to her spot midway down that row of pews — a distance from the pulpit, an arm’s length or two from the stained glass’ radiant glow. Right now, I see her clear as daylight hobbling down the aisle, her cane leading the way.

On non-Children’s Choir or Youth Choir Sundays, I’d sit beside my grandmother in “her” spot on “her” pew, belting out the congregational hymns’ harmonies, working my darnedest to compete with the gargantuan pipe organ.

Hymns are restorative, reassuring and reaffirming. Raised in unison in the congregation of believers, they provide a glimpse of a Heaven that would be. Lifted in solitude, they bind you to the community of saints now and long departed; they update your contract with the unseen HE:

I am Thine, O Lord I have heard Thy voice And it told Thy love to me.

At the piano this afternoon, I played that while Sweetie and I sang.

(C)Copyright 2020, Jonathan Clarke, All rights reserved