Imagine getting a phone call from the gardener at your out-of-state family home. Now imagine your gardener telling you that your house and your belongings are nowhere to be seen.
That’s the call a Dallas woman received recently about her family home in Jackson, Mississippi.
It turns out that a Jackson State University contractor demolished the wrong house after a “prankster” (way too mild a word) made it look like the woman’s house was the one designated to be razed, instead of a university-owned house. Said a University official, “I’m sad that we made the mistake, and I wish that we hadn’t. It was nothing intentional.”
The apology started out so promising…and ended up so utterly ruined. It’s the implied “but” just before the last sentence that ruined it.
And the homeowner agrees, commenting to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Nobody ever apologized. They just said, you know, ‘It was a mistake,’ if you call that an apology.”
Like the now-famous, “Mistakes were made,” apologies like Jackson State’s come across as disingenuous. They’re better understood as inadequate attempts to sanitize bad impact by claiming benign intentions, or attempts to shift responsibility. They feel like pretend apologies and can do more to escalate bad feelings than ease them.
Benign intentions don’t erase bad impact, anymore than bad impact automatically implies bad intentions. In conflict situations, the two can become tangled and we need to untangle them before more damage is done.
What would a stronger, more effective apology have sounded like in this situation? An effective apology would have admitted the blunder, acknowledged the impact, and been very human. Using the University’s own first sentence, it might have sounded something like this:
I’m sad that we made the mistake. Sad for a valued alum like Ms. Wilson, whose family home has been almost like a part of this campus for many years. Ms. Wilson, we know you must feel a loss, and hope you’ll accept our offer to fly you here so we can sit down personally with you. We want to apologize in person and figure out together what can be done.