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Did Will Smith’s apology work? Some lessons on the art and science of apology and forgiveness

Like many people who watched the events at last Sunday’s Academy Awards with my jaw on the floor, I was interested to see Will Smith’s apology come out the following day. As a former corporate communications practitioner, I could easily imagine the furious crisis response by his publicist and management team, working overtime doing damage control. But after reading the apology, although I felt some relief, I also felt dissatisfied. And I began to get curious why.

While I was writing my book last summer (on the neuroscience of organizational communication), I revisited a terrific research study by Fehr and Gelfand from the University of Maryland in 2010 which explored what makes apologies work, especially in terms of whether apologies actually facilitate victims’ forgiveness. The research provides rich insights that are applicable for understanding the ways Smith’s apology was successful and the ways it fell short, and it also offers helpful guidelines for individuals and organizations who want to make their apologies more effective and impactful— especially those who are genuinely remorseful and seeking forgiveness and healing.

Apology is well-documented in the literature — particularly in psychology and criminal justice research — but it turns out that what makes an apology successful is far from well-understood and even somewhat elusive. Fehr and Gelfand pointed out that most research into apology focuses on it as a dichotomous phenomenon — meaning that it is focused on whether an apology is offered or not as the biggest determinant of its success. But research shows that the actual components of an apology are just as important, and even more, that different people will have different expectations and needs in terms of how those components are framed. The most important components of an apology consist of: offers of compensation, expressions of empathy, and/or acknowledgement of violations of group norms.

Even as the components are key, Fehr and Gelfand also found the self-concept of the person being apologized to plays a powerful role. Their research pointed to a construct known as self-construal —the relationship of the self to others — as a vital consideration in explaining whether and why an apology inspires forgiveness, particularly in terms of what components of an apology will be most acceptable to a victim. For example, for people with more independent self-construal — which emphasizes individualism and freedom (and common in Western cultures) — apologies with offers of compensation tend to be most effective. For people with more relational self-construal — which emphasizes connection with others — expressions of empathy will be most valued. And for people with more collective self-construal — which emphasizes group identity and belonging (and common in Eastern cultures) — acknowledgement of the violation of the group’s norms will be key.

But the case of Will Smith’s apology is even more complex, mainly because Smith in fact injured more than one party, albeit in different ways. Chris Rock was certainly the primary victim (and the only one victimized in a violent and physical way), but a number of individuals and groups were also aggrieved — as has been attested to in the news coverage. These parties include the Academy, the hosts and producers of the event, the community of artists and actors whose work was being honored, the Williams family, comedians more generally, fans of the artists, and the audience at large. And because each stakeholder is somewhat unique (especially in terms of self-construal), Smith’s apology could have been framed more expansively, and included more components.

From my reading, Smith’s apology focused primarily on the violation of group norms. This was most evident in his statement that “there is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness” and that his behavior was “unacceptable and inexcusable.” But there was a missed opportunity for the expression of the other apology components, which may have been even more effective here. For example, there was surprisingly little empathy expressed for Chris Rock and what the emotional experience of this event must have been like for him, especially in such a public arena. There was also no empathy expressed for how others experienced Smith’s actions, and how distressing it may have been to see a respected figure in the industry (and a hero to many) behave in such a way. Fehr and Gelfand point out that expressions of empathy often include compassion for a victim’s suffering, or and understanding of the consequences on their wellbeing. But Smith’s statement did not include this recognition. Indeed, as many have noted, there was a disturbing role reversal, casting himself (and his wife) as the victims of abuse, rather than the person he had attacked.

In addition, given that a high degree of independent self-construal would be operative in both Rock and Smith, it would make sense for Smith to offer some kind of compensation to Rock. It’s clear in the literature that this compensation does not have to be financial (although it can be), but rather with a focus on fully acknowledging the injury that has been done and, even more importantly, offering to restore equity —a sense of fairness, dignity, and well as restitution to the person injured.

The standing ovations of the live audience in the auditorium have been much maligned, and I would posit, rather misunderstood. The audience was clearly stunned by what had transpired, and the anxiety in the room was palpable. By the time the Best Actor award was presented, audience members were almost certainly hoping that Smith would attempt to rectify what had been a shocking violation of social mores and decorum. We needed him to resolve the anxiety his actions had generated. However, the apology he offered was equivocal, and his explanation rambling — at times sincere and repentant, other times confused and indignant. This created even more unease - especially as his speech continued for some time (another curious norm violation). The audience kept waiting for Smith to redeem himself, and he never really did. So, in the end the audience simply pretended he did, in order to manage the collective anxiety his behavior had created.

Hopefully, in time Smith will come to understand how to make amends more fully. But, based on the literature, true forgiveness will probably require seeking to make it right for Rock, as well as expressing genuine empathy for Rock’s and others' emotional experience of the event and its aftermath.

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