Apologizing means never having to say you’re sorry

(With apologies to Erich Segal)

As you probably know, Joel Stein wrote a piece entitled “My Private India” for the July 5 issue of Time that created a lot of anger in the desi community. To put it mildly, Stein brusquely stated his beef with the fact that so many Indian immigrants had decided to settle in his former hometown, Edison, New Jersey. In response to the ensuing outrage, Time put out this apology:

We sincerely regret that any of our readers were upset by Joel Stein’s recent humor column “My Own Private India.” It was in no way intended to cause offense.

This apology got me thinking. What does it mean to actually say you’re sorry?

“It is easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission,” as Grace Hopper reportedly said. But there are also ways to look like you’re apologizing without actually doing so. My personal favorite is the “IF-THEN (ELSE)” conditional statement common in psuedo-apologetic syntax. “I didn’t mean to, but IF I hurt your feelings, THEN I’m sorry” is a commonly-used version of the “IF-THEN” which isn’t necessarily as heart-felt as “I am sorry I hurt your feelings.” The unsaid part of the “IF-THEN” construct is, of course, the “ELSE” condition. In other words “IF I hurt your feelings, THEN I’m sorry (ELSE I may not actually be sorry at all).”

This can be taken to annoying, condescending extremes as I recently witnessed in a disclaimer for the Bangla film,  Aamra. The film, a rather somnolent bore,  had a number of scenes shot with hand-held cameras, a defiant, non-apologetic apology and a word of advise* before the starting credits. Translated into plain English, it is as if the filmmakers wanted to say, “We shot this film this particular way on purpose. All the cool people are doing it. We’re sorry if you’re an idiot who doesn’t appreciate it.”

On the other hand, I do have to give credit to the filmmakers for not attempting to apologize for the actual content in this disastrous film. Genuine or fake, that one would never have been accepted.


*The disclaimer had “advise” instead of “advice”. My opinion is that if you’re going to look down on your viewers, at least be grammatically correct.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban


18 thoughts on “Apologizing means never having to say you’re sorry

  1. Shabash!
    First off, by inner desi, that is located below my outer gori, thought Stein’s article was another lame attempt by a smug hipster to sound cool and edgy on top of his xenophobia, and you hit the nail on the head comparing Time’s apology to the Bangla film disclaimer. My compliments to you for tying it all together in this neat package. There are so many people like that author who are trying to be funny, yet end up sounding mean and ungracious. I am working on a name for that type of person/humor; what about entitlement humor? Anyway, I think the steps to a genuine apology involve acknowledgement, remorse/regret, and ultimately a good faith promise to not repeat the offense. Did the Time “apology” do any of these? The “if-then” clause almost seems to remove even the most basic elements of the apology; it even removes the acknowledgment of the wrong.
    Again, you’ve made me think as well as laugh, and if you think that’s great, then all the best!

    p.s. In case you haven’t seen it, here’s on of the Sepia Mutiny links to a reaction to that guy’s (like to leave out the name to decrease the attention he’s gotten) faux-ironic article. http://bit.ly/c1CPud

    1. Entitlement humor sounds good to me. You turn on Comedy Central and people without any sense of comic timing are trying, really trying too hard to make people laugh. Thanks for breaking down the sequence of the IF-THEN apology in clearer terms than I did.

      Oh man, and the Sepia Mutiny column by Anna! That was such a hot topic in desi circles on Twitter for a few days.

      Take care. Stay cool.

  2. I agree with Sitaji…
    I felt the author was trying too hard to be funny and in the end coming out as purely racist..
    A sad sad article…
    And yes…I am sorry If I have hurt your feelings is such a sorry excuse of an apology…
    Haha for the movie disclaimer 🙂

    1. Thanks LP. I agree that it wasn’t funny at all, but the whole galti se mistake ho gaya part was just a publicity stunt to get more traffic.


  3. Brilliant Ani. I have been a fan of Joel Stein for years and mostly relate to his humor.But even I thought it was a little too stretched.Now your post throws light on a very real issue with all of us. We just spit out an apology like that would work as the “undo” button. Erich Segal would probably “love” this post if he read it. About Amraa, did not hear about it but since you have now mentioned will be “sorry” if I do not stay away from it.

    1. Thanks, LEB. Stein’s post and the subsequent non-retraction disclaimer of an “apology” was the hook I needed to write about something I’d thought about before.

      Do give Aamra a miss. Quite filled with Bangali antelismé if you aske me. 😀

  4. I have not read the article BUT i must say that we sometimes take things too personally…Where are those days when light banter was the norm…If Indians are everywhere what is the prob if someone takes a light dig…Anyways its My personal opinion…

    Will read the article and come back

    1. Agree with you Nish…

      Now, if you look at some of the blogs including the one that Sitaji linked (which probably got the most traffic) there were a lot of people seriously offended.

  5. I just read the article and fail to understand why anyone would find it offensive. He does meander a bit and its possible that some of his statements may come off as ambiguous. If you have a chip on your shoulder, you may would probably consider it offensive when, in actuality, it was not meant to be!

    Regarding the bangla movie, I do find that opening credit a nice dig at the standard apology line which you highlighted! You could also have included the Pope’s apologies to different groups (there are so many, one does not know where to start!!)

    1. Haha.. there are so many non-apologetic apologies as you mention. In fact if memory serves correct, even the BP COO went on CNN and apologized with the “IF-THEN” apology construct.

      Regarding the Stein article, I agree with you completely. I found it unfunny, but then again what do I know?


  6. That’s vintage Ani :-). I like these posts – short and subtle.
    I read Stein’s post. It was funny to a certain extent. But, yes, more racist than funny.
    Watched Aamra – seemed to be a decent movie. I don’t know who is the director etc – but I have a feeling it is done by some students of some film institute. I had noticed the fake apology at the beginning. I didn’t strongly like or dislike their approach of “jerky camera moves” but I did think they went overboard with that ‘apology’

    btw, you have been tagged in my blog 😛

    1. Thanks, Raja. I didn’t find Stein’s post funny. It was just really weird.

      If you liked Aamra, there seems to be a number of Bangla movies with similar themes these days which is n number of couples talking about love and extramartial affairs for around 2 hours in a mix of >50% English. Try Cross Connection – at least it is a bit funnier..

  7. Good post but just tell me if i sound genuine when i say…sorry u got offended,that was not my intention.
    If Then Else conditional apology well explained and got me thinking on mine.No i don’t intend to be pseudo sorry either.But are my words convincing enough …i guess…
    Have to read Stein’s post and see Aamra so thanks for that part too. 🙂

    1. I think the intention and the way an apology is offered is paramount. Of course with the desi shashtang-dandavat-pranam you don’t need to say a word! It is humility defined.

  8. 1. You changed your theme! :O

    I don’t like it…too black and white. 😦

    2. I personally love this form of apology:
    “I’m sorry you’re an ”

    “Dude, Star Wars sucks!”
    “Hey! I love Star Wars…stop saying stuff like that, you’re just being mean”
    “Oh…well, I’m sorry…that you’re a nerd!”

    1. This theme is harder to read and slower to load. I may simply revert back to the old one based on feedback.

      I also like the word ‘apologetics” which is the defense of a religion through use of reason. (Talk about mixing concepts)

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