This week I’ve been thinking about apologies. It started when I looked at Facebook’s “Trending” list the other day, and saw Jonah Hill on The Tonight Show apologizing for using an offensive term when a member of the paparazzi angered him. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it below:

 

 

As I watched the clip, I started thinking about public apologies. My first reaction to the video was that this was something Mr. Hill thought was difficult, but necessary, and that his words, his tone, and his body language all made me feel he was being sincere. Many people who commented on the clip agreed, although there was the occasional dissenter (as there always is).

Being linguistically trained, I started to wonder why exactly I believed he was sincere. I thought of a few specific moments:

  • At the beginning, Mr. Hill tells the story of the incident in a clear and succinct way, which implies that he’s thought about what he wants to say and has planned it. But at around the 1:00 mark, he pauses, says, “I think that,” stops talking briefly, says, “Sorry, I think that” and pauses again. He also pauses at several other points later in the clip. These pauses and repetitions are more conversational in tone, rather than part of a carefully planned speech, and imply “spontaneous and heartfelt” rather than “planned and calculated.”
  • At 1:56, Mr. Hill lifts his eyes directly to the camera to address those watching the show on TV (or the computer). About 15 seconds later, he looks at the camera to say, “Use me as an example of what not to do.” For most of the clip he avoids looking up at the camera, and so this deliberate shift seems significant.

But these are just my quick thoughts, based on what I know about body language, repetition, and pauses in general. Wouldn’t it be great if a linguist looked at apologies in greater depth?

As if in answer to my thoughts, today I discovered that a linguist has in fact done this very thing! Edwin Battistella, a linguistics professor at Southern Oregon University, has written a book titled Sorry About That, which looks at the language of public apologies, based on many hours of reading transcripts (and other written documents) and watching YouTube videos very much like the one I talk about above.

I’m adding this book to my reading list, and will discuss it in a future blog post. And FYI: the article states that this book is “written in layman’s terms” because the author, “really like(s) the idea of professors writing for the general public, as well as for one another…” which is an idea I wholeheartedly agree with!

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2 thoughts on “How do we Know if an Apology is Sincere?

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