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Spike Lee and Geraldo: Why is a good apology so hard to find?

The number of reported public apologies has skyrocketed recently, yet the quality of those apologies is plummeting. The trend appears to have captured Spike Lee and Geraldo Rivera.

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In this June 2010 file photo, Fox News Channel commentator Geraldo Rivera speaks on the 'Fox & friends' television program in New York. Rivera has spent the past week fending off criticism of his efforts to apologize for his comments that the Florida teenager Trayvon Martin might not have been shot had he not been wearing a hoodie.

Richard Drew/AP/File

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Public apologies are so common these days that multiple websites have sprung up just to keep track of who is asking forgiveness of whom. Effectiveapology.com, for instance, has a blog with the “apology of the week,” and the just-launched terribleapologies.tumblr.com ranks the worst of them.

This week alone, Geraldo Rivera and Spike Lee are in the apology corner being assessed, evaluated, and rated on the details of their infraction and the effectiveness and sincerity of their public efforts to make amends.

This critical scrutiny of public manners leads to some obvious questions about why we are seeing such an extended effort to recover after making a highly visible faux pas: Why does it seem so hard to apologize these days – have we all forgotten simple early lessons about how to say “sorry"?

“We are in a pandemic of bad behavior,” says Dr. Aaron Lazare, chancellor and dean emeritus of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and author of the 2004 book “On Apology.” 

He has studied the frequency of apologies in published news reports from 1900 to the present day and says since the 1980s, “the number of apologies has tripled.” But, he adds, the effectiveness and sincerity of those apologies has plummeted.

“Most of these people simply want to have their cake and eat it too,” he says, noting that the key to a genuine apology is humility and restoration of dignity for the offended party.

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