Mark Halperin appeared on MSNBC today and, apparently under the assumption that his language would be bleeped, used an impolite term to describe President Obama. Bad news: His comment wasn’t censored, and now, despite a rapid apology, he’s been suspended by the network. “My remark was unacceptable, and I deeply regret it,” Halperin said. Of course, Barack Obama has thousands of more important things to worry about, and—let’s face it—he’s been called worse. But let’s suppose, for a moment, that he and Halperin were to run into each other soon in an informal context. Would it be unbearably awkward, or can we assume that Halperin’s apology has smoothed things over?
According to a 2010 paper by Ryan Fehr and Michele Gelfand of the University of Maryland, it depends on how well Halperin’s apology matches up with Obama’s personality. Lamenting the fact that most studies of apologies have focused on one binary question—did the offender apologize or not?—the authors argue that “central to the question of why some apologies succeed where others fail is a recognition that all apologies are not created equal.” Some apologies might focus on compensating someone for a loss; others might need to focus on the societal norms that were violated in the offense. The authors posit that in order for apologies to be effective, they must be “consistent with the victims’ self-views”—specifically, that “victims who emphasize the independent, relational, and collective self-construals will be most likely to forgive their offenders following offers of compensation, expressions of empathy, and acknowledgments of violated rules/norms, respectively.” This means that people who see themselves as “independent” tend to emphasize their own uniqueness, be self-oriented, and see relationships as exchange-oriented. This group prefers apologies to contain offers of compensation. “Relational” people, for their part, see themselves as connected to others and defined by their relationships, so they prefer a display of empathy. Finally, “collective” people value groups and social categories, so they respond to an understanding by the offender that some norm has been violated. The authors found that their results supported this thesis: “The tailoring of apologies to individuals’ self-construals,” they conclude, “can result in increased victim forgiveness.” Hopefully, for Halperin’s sake, his apology correctly discerned how Obama construes himself, and maybe that will make their next encounter go a little more smoothly.