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July 13th, 2019
The current ‘cancel culture’ that rages through the avenues of social media is an intensely supercharged case study that highlights why apologies don’t work.
Everyone hears this, everyone says it. And it doesn’t take much digging around to realize the subtle and inconvenient mechanism here that makes sorryvery problematic – especially in a culture geared towards instant satisfaction.
We can approach the problem more obviously by invoking a perennial example:
When someone apologies repeatedly for the same mistake, how meaningful is the apology?
Most everyone has had some exposure to this kind of behavior, whether in themselves or others. If a mistake is continually made and apologized for, then the apology quickly loses any meaning. It starts sounding like a lie because it is not indicating any change in behavior for the future.
The hazy ground here is intention, especially when we care deeply for the person apologizing. In that case we truly want to believe the apology because we yearn for a better world where the mistake isn’t being made. This lovable human foible is completely non-existent in cancel culture because the social platforms upon which cancel culture thrives is occurring just about exclusively between strangers. These are not loved ones attacking loved ones as might happen over a turkey dinner during Thanksgiving.
It’s far easier to dismiss someone and their apology when people have no interest in believing the apology.
This is at the heart of why apologies don’t work, especially in the age of social media: an apology, as an indication of changed future behavior has a 50% chance of being a complete lie. When faced with a mob there’s simply no other option than to try to apologized, but it’s obvious to everyone that such an apology is more about saving face in that moment than it is about behavioral change. Even if there is an honest and genuine intention behind the apology, the crucial ingredient to test for it does not fit into the framework of social media, that is: time.
The only way to find out if an apology truly is genuine is to stick around and see if the person apologizing makes the mistake again.
We must, for a moment take an aside to wonder about the individual’s sheer ability to change. Behavioral change can be very difficult, even with a complete and genuine wish to change. A single visit to an alcoholics anonymous meeting or any drug addiction support group meeting will demonstrate just how confused, conflicted and angry a single individual can be about the paradox of their own behavior when held up against their wishes to act otherwise.
Regardless of this core complicating fact of human behavior, the audience for most apologies just isn’t willing to stick around to see if a person will change. The default assumption is that such a person won’t change, because they are either lying, or because behavior change is so difficult, that such a person simply can’t change, despite how genuine the apology might be.
In terms of probability, with the odds of behavior change stacked against the person making the apology, the receiver of such an apology makes a safer bet by assuming that the apology will not bear the fruit it promises… as pessimistic as that might sound.
The framework of social media as epitomized by the infinite scroll of the social feed that constantly gives us something new, has no time nor mechanism to wait around to verify the behavior change of a person apologizing. Within this framework, the default assumption reigns supreme. Social media makes no room for any other option. Because there is a constant and never-ending line up of things we can experience on social media, we only ever have time for a first impression.
What percentage of tweets or posts do people go back to 3-4 times to reflect upon in order to fully unpack the context? This kind of behavior is without a doubt extremely rare. And given the way social media has been constructed, the likelihood that we will see a behavioral change on the part of the masses using such social media is extremely low, like an addict who is functionally blind to the chemical framework of addiction that lies active deep within their brain.
Given that we’ve placed ourselves between the rock and hard place of social media frameworks, we are left only with brute force strategies that are hard to swallow.
Considering that it’s impossible to apologize in a way that immediately wins over the masses, the only option left is to apologize only once and then endeavor to change behavior accordingly.
As part of the mass audience for apologies, the strategy is to delay reaction, to counter the intoxication of the tribe with the reflective pause of the individual mind and reserve judgment for the long-term.
Both of these require difficult long-term behaviors that are only possible with a calm mind.
As the old adage goes: actions speak louder than words,
but note: actions take time, and words we can rattle off nearly instantly. So what speaks loudest takes time to hear.
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