Elton John lamented in song that "sorry seems to be the hardest word."
With all due respect to Sir Elton, he has it all wrong. "Sorry" doesn't seem to be very hard to say at all. In fact, it's often way too easy.
It's frequently observed that an aspect of our tech-driven media age is that inappropriate comments and conduct once kept at least relatively private are now instantaneously shared by mass audiences. Anyone within striking distance of a cell phone — that is to say, pretty much everyone — can have their words and actions blasted far and wide in a nanosecond.
We could argue whether this modern practice of making indiscretions very public, very quickly is good or bad for society — there are points to be made either way — but there's no doubt that it's led to at least one unfortunate development: the evolution of the apology as both high art and public relations product management.
Celebrity apologies have become almost a daily occurrence. A shame-faced parade of actors, athletes, politicians and other public figures routinely offer carefully crafted apologies for a bewildering array of racist, sexist and homophobic slurs, and unseemly behavior. Just recently two of my younger son's favorite actors, Jonah Hill and Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon, for goodness sakes!), have been compelled to say "sorry" for, respectively, using a derogatory term for gays and defending Mel Gibson's anti-Jewish tirades.
Such statements are then rehashed and parsed ad nauseam. Was the appropriate level of humility demonstrated? Did they seem sincere? Have they really apologized, or merely given one of those non-apology apologies, like the kind that express regret if someone was offended? (Notice the way a little two-letter word, "if," subverts the entire meaning, as if to say, "Wink, wink, you all know I'm not really sorry, I'm just bowing to pressure and following form so I'll be able to work again.")
Of course, half-hearted and insincere apologies are nothing new. In the 19th century, British naval hero and member of Parliament Lord Charles Beresford feuded with the prince of Wales over Beresford's extramarital affair and His royal highness' retaliatory snubbing. The prince later offered a written apology, but also vowed never to forgive Beresford. For his part, Beresford famously quipped in a telegram declining a dinner invitation by the prince, "Very sorry can't come. Lie follows by post."
Ah, but those were simpler times. The Beresford affair was scandalous news in upper-crust Victorian England, but probably registered little beyond that. These days, such incidents would be fodder for gossip-mongering website TMZ and a flurry of tweets followed by millions around the world. It's hardly surprising then that celebrity apologies these days appear to be vetted by committees of publicists and lawyers.
Given the sorry state of "sorry" these days, what's a parent to do? We've all been in the position of telling our kids to apologize in the generic "Jason, tell your sister you're sorry for punching her arm" sort of way. But we certainly don't want our children to become accustomed to giving hollow, facile apologies just to get out of trouble.
We shouldn't settle for surly "sorries" accompanied by shrugging and eye-rolling that not only demonstrate a lack of remorse, but pretty much guarantee that kids will do the very same thing again when Mom's not looking.
But how can we hold our kids to a higher standard when the people they look up to don't seem to mean it when they apologize? How do we teach them to accept real responsibility?
"It's not just the words," said Kathleen Cover, who teaches etiquette classes for children and adults at Pelican Hill Resort and for teens on probation through a court-sponsored program.
That might seem an interesting response from an etiquette expert. But Cover explained that while her instruction focuses on the formal rules of etiquette, she also tries to inculcate students with an understanding of manners, which is distinguished by a consideration for others through everyday courtesies.
"It's also trying to make certain they have empathy," she said. "It's focusing on really teaching them to put themselves in another person's shoes and seeing how they feel."
The best way to do that, Cover said, is to teach by example. Parents need to put down their own cell phones, look their children in the eyes, and quietly explain to them the consequences of their actions, she suggested. It also helps for adults to tell children about their own experiences, such as when they may have hurt a friend and how that affected them.
"When you help them understand, they retain that information," she said.
Many educators and parenting advocates also stress that letting kids get by with merely saying "sorry" doesn't address underlying issues. It might take more work on an adult's part, but children should learn to fully articulate their apologies by saying exactly what they're apologizing for, why it was wrong, and how they'll need to change in the future.
A real, sincerely offered "sorry" isn't an easy thing to say. But our kids need to understand the difference between a weak, self-serving apology and an honest, heartfelt acceptance of responsibility. One can make matters worse. The other can change the world for the better.
PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.