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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Last week, Boeing Airlines CEO Dave Calhoun testified before Congress. The title the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations gave the session was “Boeing’s Broken Safety Culture,” but it might as well have been “PLEASE, for the Love of GOD, Why Did That Door YEET ITSELF Off Your Plane 16,000 Feet in the AIR!?!”

Upon his arrival to Congress, Calhoun immediately gave his skeptics even more fodder. “I’m here to answer questions. I’m here in the spirit of transparency. And I’m here to take responsibility,” he told reporters after he came through the Senate hearing room’s backdoor. He then walked away—refusing to answer any of the gathered reporter’s questions. The hypocrisy seemed to be lost on him.

At the hearing, after being thoroughly reprimanded by Senator Blumenthal, the committee chair, and Senator Johnson, the ranking member, it was Calhoun’s turn to speak. He opened his testimony with a dramatic moment. He turned to the people sitting behind him—a sea of family members and those affected by Boeing’s various malpractices, holding up signs with faces and names and calls for justice—and apologized.

I would like to apologize, on behalf of all of our Boeing associates spread throughout the world, past and present, for your losses. They’re gut-wrenching. And I apologize for the grief that we have caused. And I want you to know we are totally committed, in their memory, to work and focus on safety, for as long—as long as we are employed by Boeing. And again, I’m sorry.

The CEO then turned back to the senators and exhaled. The apology hadn’t looked easy, but Calhoun had delivered it with a steady voice. The move had been planned, per the official statement he submitted, but he’d improvised and improved upon the exact language. And the words themselves, while imperfect, were strong. No wiggly ifs or buts. No ass-covering corporate boilerplate. He acknowledged their pain as valid and caused by Boeing. And he said those two key words: “I’m sorry.”

So Calhoun admitted harm, expressed remorse, and committed to change. Sorry Not Sorry readers and apology enthusiasts around the world should be thrilled, right? Just one problem: the audience wasn’t buying it.

Nadia Milleron, whose daughter was killed in a 2019 Boeing plane crash, went on CNN and told Abby Phillip, “He looked at me in the eye, and he said, ‘I am sorry,’ and I said, ‘You are sorry?’” Milleron felt the apology was more of a cover-up. “It wasn’t a real apology,” she explained. “He doesn’t want people to know that they cut corners on production, they cut out inspectors, and as a result, there are all these problems in these planes… so he’s covering up by saying, ‘Yes, we’re very sorry, we’re very sorry.’”

What gives Milleron’s claim legitimacy—and really makes Calhoun’s job difficult—is this isn’t the first Boeing apology. Calhoun became the CEO of Boeing in January 2020 after his predecessor was fired in the aftermath of two plane crashes due to faulty flight control software that killed nearly 350 people. Boeing apologized for those crashes, and then apologized again when it released more than a hundred pages of documents to Congress that showed they had deceived air safety regulators and consumers. “We regret the content of these communications, and apologize to the FAA, Congress, our airline customers, and to the flying public for them,” Boeing said at the time.

Similarly, when Boeing whistleblower John Barnett died by suicide a few months ago after undergoing intense questioning from Boeing lawyers, the company expressed sadness and remorse over his death. The whistleblower’s brother, Rodney Barnett, was not won over by Calhoun’s apology—then or now. He told reporters on Capitol Hill that he thought his recent testimony offered a lot of “empty words.” Indeed, in this case, it’s not the language itself that’s the problem, but the actions that belie the words. This wasn’t Calhoun or Boeing’s first apology; it was the latest in a string of them, after which the accidents and bad behavior kept happening.

One way to think of an apology is as a promise: you disavow your actions and swear you won’t do it again. And we forgive people because we believe their promise. They’ve given us some compelling evidence to feel, to trust, that if faced with a similar set of circumstances in the future, they’ll act differently.

So, it should be no surprise that if you break that promise, and don’t change your behavior, future apologies get harder to believe. Trust goes down, and the burden for belief goes up. It’s why Anthony Weiner gets a second chance but not a fourth. It’s why the pope can get away with apologizing for using a homophobic slur the first time, but perhaps not the second. Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, and forgiveness comes as easily as landing a Boeing 737 Max 9 with a missing door plug. It’s technically possible, but I wouldn’t volunteer to try.