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How to Apologize (and Be Forgiven)

After an internet firestorm, E! News host Giuliana Rancic apologized to actress Zendaya Coleman for her "patchouli...or weed" comment. Was her apology effective? The Public Speaker explains the essential elements of a sincere apology.

By
Lisa B. Marshall,
Episode #286

This week is the perfect time to talk about apologies.

Earlier this week, E! News fashion reporter Giuliana Rancic made a joke about Disney star Zendaya Coleman’s dreadlocks during the Oscar red carpet. She couldn’t have guessed what a firestorm her words would cause.

It's funny, that same day the trainer at my gym failed to show up for my 5:30am training session. Although the trainer offered a lame apology (which made me want to send him some of the tips you're about to hear), his boss, the owner of the gym, sent me a decent apology for the trainer's behavior. 

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In case you missed it, here’s the play-by-play of what happened with the Giuliana Rancic debacle:

  • During E! News' coverage of Oscar fashion, Giuliana Rancic commented on a photo of Zendaya by saying, “I feel like she smells like patchouli oil...or weed.”

  • Zendaya and others immediately called her comments “outrageous.” The 18-year-old tweeted a lengthy message explaining why this comment was hurtful and offensive. (Check out the Savvy Psychologist's insightful episode How to Deal with Racism on the destructive power of these kinds of microaggressions).

  • Giuliana quickly tweeted this apology: "Dear @Zendaya, I'm sorry I offended you and others. I was referring to a bohemian chic look. Had NOTHING to do with race and NEVER would!!!"

  • Almost instantly Twitter erupted with cries that this apology wasn’t good enough. One tweet I read said “I’m sorry you’re offended is not an apology. Try again.”

  • Finally, Giuliana Rancic issued an apology on TV, this time a sincere apology. Zendaya accepted it.

“I’m Sorry I Offended You” is Not an Apology

Communication experts call this a “non-apology” apology. It’s a common tactic used by public figures who need to save face, but don’t want to admit any blame. Another non-apology statement we hear often is “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Licensed Psychologist Dr. Guy Winch lays out the key elements of a real apology in his article "The Five Ingredients of an Effective Apology." Because I believe Giuliana Rancic’s second apology met most of the criteria he lays out, I’ll list her statements next to the element they meet. I'll also list the statements from the gym owner who succeeded in apologizing for the no-show trainer (did I mention it was 5:30am?).

So here are the 5 elements of an effective apology: 

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