A 2023 Column Contest grand-prize winner, Laurence Pevsner’s Sorry Not Sorry investigates why we’re sick of everyone apologizing all the time—and how the collapse of the public apology leaves little room for forgiveness and grace in our politics and culture.

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In 2015, Ariana Grande licked doughnuts that were not hers to lick. She and her boyfriend at the time, as some kind of lovers’ hijinks or truth-or-dare game, surreptitiously touched their tongues to several of Wolfee Donuts’ finest unpurchased offerings. Then, when the workers came out and presented Ariana with a fresh batch of glazed treats, she declared, “What the fuck is that? I hate Americans. I hate America!”

Unfortunately for Ariana, this strange series of events was caught on camera by Wolfee Donuts and broadcast by TMZ. The media, and even her fans, pounced. They called what she did disgusting and unpatriotic. Hard to argue with either. In one response video, a young girl named Chrissy burned a picture of Ariana atop a barbecue and said, “Say bye to your career!”

What makes this surreal incident debatably worthy of study is the way Grande proved Chrissy wrong. Instead of going on Late Night for her mea culpa moment, or having her publicist release a carefully crafted response statement, Grande decided to handle this one herself—or at least, make it appear that way. She apologized for the donut-licking and the America-hating via Twitter, posting a screenshot of the text she had presumably written on the Notes App that comes with an iPhone.

This is the earliest example I can find of the “Notes App apology,” a trend that continued to gain traction in 2016. Vogue declared 2019 the “Year of the Celebrity Notes App Apology,” and a New York Times op-ed called the Notes App apology the medium of choice for “How We Apologize Now.” But just as soon as the Notes App Apology came, so it went. By 2020, Vanity Fair proclaimed the trend dead—and in 2021, Paper Mag said they were “so last year.”

Clearly, the technology of apology moves fast. We might call the reason why the “sincerity cycle.”

The cycle starts with skepticism. When public figures attempt to apologize, they face immediate suspicion. After all, they’ve just been caught doing something wrong. If they thought it was wrong, why’d they do it?

Public figures have it even harder than us private citizens. When I apologize to my girlfriend for constantly talking about the public discourse implications of Ariana Grande, she can use all kinds of tools to tell that I mean it: she can look at my face and see if any of my typical tells for lying are on display, or tempt me by playing “Touch It” or “Bad Idea” to see if I bring up the doughnut incident. Most important is that she knows me: she knows I am the kind of person who thinks hard about apologies and means them when I make them.

But these methods of sincerity detection rely on having intimate familiarity with the ways your subject thinks and acts, as well as access to an accounting of their future actions. For public figures, even those we develop parasocial relationships with, these tools are blunted. We don’t know what the person is really like, and we don’t know what they do behind closed doors. Without the full context of the person, we are quick to assume, often rightly, that the celebrity/actor/politician/CEO is just trying to salvage their public reputation with their apology, and isn’t really sorry for their actions so much as they are sorry they got caught.

Enter the Notes App apology: a new tool for celebrities to demonstrate sincerity! Grande’s innovation was to “prove” that her apology wasn’t mediated through her professional PR team or even a television program by changing the medium (while also getting around the then 140-character limit of Twitter). She’s saying, in essence, “I’ve used the basic apps and services you, too, have available to you and wrote my own serious thoughts out about this licking and hating America incident, typos and imperfections included, all to demonstrate that I really am sorry.”

This worked so well that everyone copied the idea. Ja Rule reached for the Notes App when Fyre Fest went awry (“I truly apologize as this is NOT MY FAULT.”) Justin Bieber, our generation’s sultan of sorry, released a Notes App apology to cover “every bad decision you could have thought of” and in yet another Notes App apology specifically highlighted that the note was “grammatically incorrect” but “from the heart.” Even the Dalai Lama used the form when he, too, had to apologize for trying to put his tongue where he wasn’t supposed to (a little boy’s mouth).

Of course, the copying itself undoes the innovation over time. The Notes App trick conveyed sincerity because it wasn’t the normal way of doing things. Once it’s the standard response, our standard suspicions return.

That’s why when Justin Timberlake wrote a long Notes App apology to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson, fans didn’t think it sounded like him when he talked about “benefiting from a system that condones misogyny and racism.” And it’s why the Notes App didn’t work for Logan Paul when he ended his apology for making jokes next to a man’s dead body with #Logang4Life. As soon as you suspect that a savvy publicist has pre-written or vetted Justin Timberlake’s statement, or that Logan Paul is only saying what he needs to say to get his viewers back, the illusion is revealed. The little hack of using the Notes App to convey that you really were baring your apologetic soul becomes customary in the sorry toolkit.

So then the public figure must innovate once more. Colleen Ballinger hit the wrong note with her ukulele-sung video apology (“The only thing I’ve ever groomed is my two Persian cats”), but she was right to pick a new medium for the celebrity apology: the personally filmed video. A few months later, Drew Barrymore took to recording a “raw” video of herself to apologize for her plan to break the writers’ strike. She says, “I didn’t want to hide behind people, so I won’t, and I won’t polish this with bells and whistles and publicists and corporate rhetoric.” Once again, a direct attempt at conveying sincerity. Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis followed with their own apology in the same format, though Kunis gave the game away by sounding like she was reading from notes provided by her hostage taker.

The result is the ever-repeating sincerity cycle. But each time we take a spin, our belief in apology itself gets diminished. Our faith that someone can sincerely be remorseful for their actions, and care more about making it right than protecting their reputation, falls away. This helps explain why survey research indicates we now think less of public figures when they apologize for their wrong actions. The findings say we prefer our public figures double down on their wrongness, even when we think what they’ve done is horrendous. At least, we say, they aren’t being fake.

This is how the death of the Notes App apology heralds the death of the genuine public apology. Public reconciliation burns atop a barbecue, while our celebrities chant, “Say bye to saying sorry!”