American swimmer Ryan Lochte has apologized for his behavior during an altercation in Rio de Janeiro. A good apology cites specifics and is direct about the people who were harmed. His isn’t.
Lochte and his three teammates originally claimed they were robbed at gunpoint by Brazilians posing as police officers. Surveillance video reveals a different story: they stopped a gas station, vandalized a bathroom, and then handed over money when a security guard demanded it. Lochte’s lawyer says that still amounts to a robbery: “That part of the story will never change.”
Ryan Lochte did not tell the full story, misled authorities, and embarrassed the host country and city and his Olympic team. So he apologized on Instagram. But his apology fails because it is vague about what he did wrong. He starts like this:
I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend — for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning and for my role in taking the focus away from the many athletes fulfilling their dreams of participating in the Olympics.
The weasel words here are a clue that he fails to take responsibility for anything specific, just for “not being more careful and candid.” They acknowledge neither damaging property nor misleading authorities and media.
He also fails to fairly describe who he and his teammates harmed. He acknowledges the athletes, but not the host city, whose reputation he has impugned. (While there’s plenty of crime in Rio, that doesn’t mean it’s ok for Lochte to invent criminal acts.)
A good apology also includes an explanation that’s not an excuse. But Lochte’s excuse is that he’s in a foreign country and was threatened (in response to damaging property):
It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave . . .
What should have have done and what is he responsible for? That’s vague. (But he finally gets around to acknowledging the host city):
. . . but regardless of the behavior of anyone else that night, I should have been much more responsible in how I handled myself and for that I am sorry to my teammates, my fans, my fellow competitors, my sponsors, and the hosts of this great event. . . . I accept responsibility for my role in this happening and have learned some valuable lessons.
“Should have been more responsible” and “my role in this happening” are meaningless phrases. And the passive voice in this apology shows what he’s not yet ready to take responsibility for:
. . . this was a situation that could and have been avoided . . .
There has already been too much said and too many valuable resources dedicated to what happened last weekend . . .
In other words, “somebody’s fault, not necessarily mine.”
While Lochte’s apology is more sincere than corporate apologies and does use the first person “I” in many places, where it’s sincere, it’s vague, and where it’s specific, it makes excuses. This is the writing of someone who feels as much victimized as responsible for the consequences of his actions.
Here’s what the apology would look like it were straightforward and direct.
My teammates and I were irresponsible this weekend. We vandalized a gas station and then failed to tell the whole story when we went to the authorities.
As a result, we embarrassed the Rio 2016 Olympics, the city of Rio de Janeiro, and our team. It’s a scary experience to have a security guard threaten you with a gun, but it was our fault we were in that situation, and we’re responsible for causing the problem in the first place.
If you’re apologizing, be specific, take personal responsibility, say who you’ve harmed, and say what you’ll do to make up for it. Until you do, nobody will move on from what you did.
Thanks to David Deal and an anonymous reader for suggesting that I analyze this.
If you want to know more about how to write clearly and directly, get my book “Writing Without Bullshit.”