A non-apology apology is a statement in the form of an apology but that is not in fact an apology at all. It is common in both politics and public relations. It most commonly entails the speaker saying that he or she is sorry not for a behavior, statement or misdeed, but rather is sorry only because a person who has been aggrieved is requesting the apology, expressing a grievance, or is threatening some form of retribution or retaliation.
An example of a non-apology apology would be saying ‘I’m sorry that you felt insulted’ to someone who has been offended by a statement. This apology does not admit that there was anything wrong with the remarks made, and additionally, it may be taken as insinuating that the person taking offense was excessively thin-skinned or irrational in taking offense at the remarks in the first place.
Non-apology apologizers may be trying to avoid litigation that might result from an admission of guilt or responsibility. Many American states have laws that prevent a plaintiff from using an apology as evidence of liability. For example, medical doctors may apologize to a patient for a bad outcome knowing the apology cannot be used against them at trial as evidence of negligence. Frequently, these statutes are misunderstood to mean that one is relieved of liability because they have apologized.
The expression ‘mistakes were made’ is commonly used as a rhetorical device, whereby a speaker acknowledges that a situation was handled poorly or inappropriately but seeks to evade any direct admission or accusation of responsibility by using the passive voice. The acknowledgement of ‘mistakes’ is framed in an abstract sense with no direct reference to who made the mistakes. An active voice construction would be along the lines of ‘I made mistakes’ or ‘X made mistakes.’ The speaker neither accepts personal responsibility nor accuses anyone else. The word ‘mistakes’ also does not imply intent.
‘The phrase has been called a ‘classic Washington linguistic construct.’ Political consultant William Schneider suggested that this usage be referred to as the ‘past exonerative’ tense, and commentator William Safire has defined the phrase as ‘[a] passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.’ While perhaps most famous in politics, the phrase has also been used in business, sports, and entertainment. Humorist Bruce McCall, in a 2001 ‘New York Times’ piece entitled ‘The Perfect Non-apology Apology,’ defined the term as referring to ‘sufficiently artful double talk’ designed to enable one to ‘get what you want by seeming to express regret while actually accepting no blame,’ and suggested some tongue-in-cheek apologies, such as: ‘Nobody is sorrier than me that the police officer had to spend his valuable time writing out a parking ticket on my car. Though from my personal standpoint I know for a certainty that the meter had not yet expired, please accept my expression of deep regret at this unfortunate incident.’