E S S A Y
By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Michael
People fall into three groups. The first consists of those
who accept responsibility for mistakes and apologize with
sincerity and genuine regret. They are an endangered
species. The second group never admits mistakes and can't
say "I'm sorry." Such people should never be hired,
elected, married, or given power of attorney. But they
usually are. The third group contains men and women who
can, if pushed to the wall, apologize, but do so very
badly. They stammer, ramble, twitch, and sort of admit
responsibility. We've been seeing a lot of them on
television the past few years — athletes,
politicians, celebrities, and best-selling authors forced
to 'fess up to misdeeds. They need help doing a better job
of apologizing. They need their own Dr. Phil.
What might a contrition counselor tell
them? Here is an advice column from one of them:
Q: How should I dress for my press conference?
A: Dress comfortably, but don't be too casual.
Muscle shirts and tank tops are out, especially for men.
Oakland Raiders caps send the wrong message. Dress lightly
because studios are hot and sweating makes you look even
guiltier than you are. You don't want your forehead
resembling a map of the Mississippi Delta. I have many
other helpful hints in my best-selling, widely available
Dressin' for Confessin'.
Q: I have trouble making eye contact when I'm being
verbally attacked. What can I do?
A: Shake your finger at the attacker. On TV it
appears that you're looking at him when you're really
watching your finger.
Q: Who should I bring to the press conference?
A: Spouses are a good choice unless they've hired
their own attorney. Avoid bringing children — they
make faces behind your back — or "special friends."
Pets are an absolute taboo. Dogs make statements of their
own; your cat is already looking for a new home; and
reptiles and rodents give a bad impression. If no one comes
with you, use that to your advantage. "I stand before you,
alone and unafraid" has a nice ring to it. Don't tell
anyone that your mother changed her name and left no
Q: In accepting responsibility for my behavior, can I
also blame someone else?
A: Absolutely. You should always explain why you
allegedly did whatever you allegedly did. It is always the
fault of people above you. If you blame people below you,
it sounds like you were a bad manager. Besides, your
superiors can afford better attorneys and are going to
throw you to the wolves anyway. Don't forget to emphasize
that your only failing was being too trusting. If there is
no one else to blame, admit having a character flaw, but
choose your flaw carefully. Anything requiring rehab is OK;
greed doesn't get much sympathy. Be sure to note that the
media blew the whole thing out of proportion.
Q: Can anything positive come from this horrible
A: A book contract and at least one appearance on
The Daily Show or Oprah if you're lucky, two
if you really screw up. You will also learn new phrases
like "shaded things a bit," "enhanced the facts," and
"memory malfunction." For my own inspirational story read
my semi-fictional memoir, Contrite Like Me....
Maybe a better class of confessions isn't the answer.
Perhaps no group of people, however reprehensible, deserves
another Dr. Phil. There is, moreover, no evidence that the
public wants anything different from the squirmy, weasely
spectacles we've been witnessing. Even if it did, no
admission of wrong-doing brings back lives lost or ruined,
pensions squandered, home runs hit, families shattered,
votes bought, or fictions marketed as facts. If we can't
have honest contrition for misdeeds, perhaps contemporary
miscreants should quit faking it and take inspiration from
their ancestors. In olden times, pirates, bound for the
gallows, bowed and waved to the crowd, sincerely
unrepentant to the end.
"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University
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