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The right (and wrong) way to apologize

Ben Tinker, CNN | 11/14/2017, 6 a.m.
There is a right way and a wrong way to apologize, psychologists say. Over the course of the past two ...

There is a right way and a wrong way to apologize, psychologists say. Over the course of the past two weeks, we've seen two high-profile examples that fall somewhere in between.

On October 29, actor Anthony Rapp accused actor Kevin Spacey of making sexual advances toward him at a party in 1986. Rapp was 14 at the time; Spacey was 26. The story was originally reported by BuzzFeed News.

The following day, Spacey posted a statement on Twitter that read, in part, "I'm beyond horrified to hear this story. I honestly do not remember the encounter, it would have been over 30 years ago. But if I did behave then as he describes, I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior, and I am sorry for the feelings he describes having carried with him all these years."

Spacey then pivoted from the serious allegations against him to confirming a longstanding rumor about his sexual orientation. "I have had relationships with both men and women," he wrote. "I have loved and had romantic encounters with men throughout my life, and I choose now to live as a gay man."

On Thursday, five women accused Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct; two said the actor and comedian undressed and masturbated in front of them in a hotel room in 2002. The story was first reported by The New York Times.

C.K. issued a statement Friday that began, "I want to address the stories told to the New York Times by five women named Abby, Rebecca, Dana, Julia who felt able to name themselves and one who did not. These stories are true."

Though both Spacey and C.K.'s statements acknowledged at least potential wrongdoing, they did so very differently.

Spacey said he has "a lot of respect and admiration" for his accuser. He claimed to not remember the encounter, arguing that he was drunk and that it was a long time ago. Spacey did, however, employ the word "apology."

Nowhere do the words "apology" or "sorry" appear in C.K.'s statement, but he too addressed his accusers by name. He also took responsibility for his actions -- no "ifs," "ands" or "buts." He acknowledged the lessons he's learned about the complexities of power (being admired by younger comedians) and expressed remorse.

C.K. concluded his statement by writing, "I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen."

How to say 'I'm sorry'

"Comprehensive apologies are powerful tools that transgressors can use to promote reconciliation with the people they have hurt," psychologist Karina Schumann wrote in a 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. "However, because many apology elements require transgressors to admit fault, express shameful emotions and promise change, transgressors often avoid these threatening elements and instead choose to use more perfunctory apologies or even defensive strategies."

Schumann, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, says there are three "core" elements of a good apology: