During the Watergate era, the press learned of a technique called “the non-denial denial” through which the administration could play a shell game with the truth. Though this technique they could seem to deny something — without going on the record and being held to it when the denial turned out to be false.
In our era we’ve seen the emergence of the “non-apology apology.” The pope’s being only the most recent. The classic syntax is “I’m sorry if my words offended anyone.” In this case, according to news reports, the Pope said he was “deeply sorry” about the fury his words caused — not his words. Now then, it’s one thing for politians to say they’re sorry for the effect of their words, if not their words, but for the titular head of Catholic Christendom to use the same ploy seems a little, well, out of character. Afterall, one of the great tenets of (my) faith is the essential call to repentence — and through it, forgiveness. There really can’t be forgiveness without repentence, right? Or is it enough to simply say, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
Would it work for more conventional brands? For retailers? For example, if you need to return a lunch box to Target.com because it arrived with two sides dented beyond repair and they just emailed you back and said, “Sorry our mailing policies upset you” — without an acknowledgement of the inconvenience or an offer to make it up to you — how would you feel? I’m stretching the point here, I know, I know. But still. I just had to return the Barbie lunch box and Target.com was very responsive and appropriately contrite. Am I being fair to hold them to a higher standard than the one to which our world leaders should be held?