Musings on apologies and uncluttered speech

Last Thursday, Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos made an Kindles.

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

When I read Bezos’ apology, I was impressed by how direct, sincere, and uncluttered it was. It didn’t contain an excuse. It didn’t shift blame to someone else. And the statement in its final sentence wasn’t an over-promise or an out-of-proportion exaggeration, it simply said that they will try to do better in the future. The apology also came pretty quickly, while consumer feelings were still riled.

Everyone makes mistakes. Apologizing when those mistakes are made isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of personal responsibility. I try to apologize when I mess up or hurt someone’s feelings or forget something important, but I don’t always get the apology right. So, I’m going to take a few lessons from Jeff Bezos and try my best to give uncluttered apologies when they’re necessary:

  • Be sincere with your contrition. If you don’t feel sorry and you say that you are, you’re just lying to the person — which is yet another wrong.
  • Be prompt. The longer you wait, usually the worse a situation spirals out of control.
  • Take responsibility. If you are responsible, say so.
  • Leave out the excuses. If the other person wants to know why you chose to do what you did, he or she will ask. An excuse doesn’t belong in your apology.
  • Match the apology to the mistake. If you wrecked your friend’s car while you were borrowing it, offer to fix your friend’s car when you apologize (and do it). If you yelled at your child without warrant, apologize and explain what you will do in the future to try to prevent it from happening again.

What do you think about apologies (in general, not necessarily Bezos’) and their ability to be uncluttered? Are they better with or without excuses? What do you think of this example? I’m interested in reading your musings in the comments.

32 Comments for “Musings on apologies and uncluttered speech”

  1. posted by Dawn on

    I think it’s shocking that this was written by a C.E.O. Usually a legal department steps in and writes it the “right” way to protect the company and avoid any actual admission of wrong-doing. Mr. Bezos got right to the point, whole-heartedly accepted blame and even mentioned its effect on future decisions. Bravo!

    It’s unfortunate when people are not willing to give a true, honest, sincere apology when they know it’s deserved and the right thing to do – especially when it comes to family. Several apologies I have heard recently I have coated with clutter – diversions, an abdundance of excuses and finger-pointing. I’d rather not receive an apology at all if it’s not from the heart and if the apologizer doesn’t even believe it themselves.

  2. posted by knitwych on

    Some of the most effective advice I’ve ever seen on offering an apology is to be found at Jimmy John’s, believe it or not. Apparently, the franchise’s decorator puts the same sign in every store. I can’t recall the exact wording, but it’s very close to this:

    The first step is to say what you did wrong.
    The second step is to say why it was wrong.
    The third step is to say you’re sorry.

    As far as I’m concerned, use of the word “but” should be very, very carefully thought out when giving an apology. “I’m sorry I broke your coffee mug, and I will replace it,” is an apology. “I’m sorry I broke your coffee mug, but it was old anyway,” is not an apology.

    I think Bezos’ apology was extremely well done. I don’t know how much it would have soothed my ruffled feathers if I were a Kindle owner, but he did a good job. Much better than Amazon did when I sent them a letter reaming them out for screwing up my Christmas order several years back. Maybe they’ve learned something.

  3. posted by Joytotheworld on

    Removing the excuses really does clean it up and honors the other person. And sincerity is key. Thanks for this post. I love giving excuses, but they aren’t that nice (I think explanations can help sometimes as long as they aren’t a repeat offense). Character checks are invaluable. Thanks, Erin, for widening the scope of uncluttering and exhorting us in the process.

  4. posted by Sarah on

    As a PR major, reading that just made me cringe. She wasn’t being direct, but rather shortsighted. The decision may have been “stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line,” but now the public is going to equate the same words with the company, not with the decision they made. Clarity, in some cases, is more important than conciseness.

  5. posted by Dawn on

    Great article and because of the way they handled it, I’d use them again. As for PR Major, Sarah, you’ve a lot to learn about what people REALLY want.

  6. posted by Gillian on

    I get very down on myself for mistakes so I apologize fairly easily. Apology is taking responsibility and it matters.

  7. posted by Joan on

    I mostly agree with your post, except that I would have liked the apology to actually include the words “I’m sorry.” I feel like the phrase “This is an apology” is kind of a cop-out. Is something really an apology if it doesn’t actually come right out and say “I’m sorry”? But I do recognize that I’m being awfully nit-picky. 😉 In general I agree that it was a well-written post and comes across as very sincere.

  8. posted by R. M. Koske on

    To Sarah, the PR person –

    I was already thinking those things about Amazon. By using the words I was already applying, the image presented is one of utter honesty, which does a lot to wipe away “stupid, thoughtless and painfully out of line.”

  9. posted by Kris on

    I disagree with Sarah’s comment. I admire Amazon’s CEO for being apologetic, forthright, and amazingly transparent. He didn’t couch his apology in business-speak. I admire anybody who can say they’re sorry and thus have a much better opinion of Amazon as a result. After their previous debacle of removing certain types of books from searches (accidental or otherwise) in which they pointed the finger at practically everyone BUT themselves, I’d say this real apology is refreshing and helps undo some of the previously self-inflicted damage their reps did through their non-apologies.

  10. posted by Krys on

    As a perfectionist, I’m always appalled when I make a mistake. And, as a perfectionist, I’m always trying to figure out WHY I made the mistake.

    When apologizing, it’s extremely difficult for me to do so without trying to explain the reason the mistake was made. However, I have come to understand that a sincere apology is for the “wronged” person, *not* for me. An explanation would be for me, and therefore has no place in any apology.

    @Erin: Thank you for sharing this excellent apology and your own thoughts! They echo my own, and validate my recent attempts to apologize better.

    @Joan: I actually don’t like the words “I’m sorry” in a professional setting. I feel that “I apologize” is preferrable in business correspondence. I think “I’m sorry” is something you say to a friend or loved one when you’ve wronged them – those words feel very personal to me, and I’m not comfortable sharing them with business associates/clients.

  11. posted by Ruth Hansell on

    @Krys, I agree 100% – the apology is intended for the recipient. Its function is to tell the recipient that the giver recognizes the transgression and the hurt or damage the transgression caused. And won’t do it again. And will replace/repair/fix to the extent possible the damage.

    Minor Rant Alert: I loathe hearing the words, “If my blahblahblah offended, hurt, angered, whatever, anyone . . . I sincerely apologize for any offense blahblahblah I may have caused.”

    If? May have caused? What a weasley thing to say, and what a “I don’t want to take responsibility for what I did, but I do want to shoot out some hot air” mind set.

    Rant off.


  12. posted by tim on

    Considering how Amazon has handled prior ‘mistakes’ (and as an owner of a Kindle) Bezo’s comment is refreshingly open. It helped ease some doubts about the Kindle and how Amazon would handle a future situation. Apple’s App Store could take some cue’s from Bezo.


    Your comment is a reminder on why no one likes those that go into PR.

  13. posted by Rebecca on

    Here’s an uncluttered attitude I was raised with: “Sorry doesn’t fix anything.” If you’re really sorry, stop talking and start fixing the problem you created. Easy as that.

  14. posted by worship trench » Blog Archive » How To Apologize–Lessons from Bezos & A Personal Story on

    […] strong analysis of the strength of Bezos’ apology for how Amazon wrongly deleted books off of people’s Kindles. Everyone in leadership will […]

  15. posted by Kathryn on


    This may not be in the spirit of unclutterer, but I think there *is* an appropriate role for the “explanation” when making an apology–not in an attempt to justify or excuse the behavior, but as a sign of sufficient introspection self-awareness to recognize the root of the problem and be able to correct it in the future. And that–the commitment to change, is one of the key elements in an adequate apology.

  16. posted by nafnosseb on

    I like this post, and I agree with your logic but I do not agree with this example because it does not apologize for building in the capability to remotely alter/remove content without permission of the owner. It is not about them deciding not to, they should not be able to do this.

  17. posted by Pat on

    I hope that PR students will take all of these comments to their professors. This should make an excellent topic for class discussions.

  18. posted by Another Deb on

    Rebecca, Although I agree that something always needs to be done to fix a situation, I have learned the hard way that people WANT the words. They may not even notice the efforts you make to try to make things right.

    I was not raised to verbalize apologies very well, but I moved to a Southern state where politeness and manners were viewed more critically. Grudges would be held…”She never SAID she was sorry, in 1955 when she broke my vase” and so on.

    I also worked customer service for a flower delivery company a few years back. You get realllllly good at apologizing and making things right dozens of times a day. It gets easier the more you say it. If you were raised like me, and not used to being that vulnerable, just practice in the mirror.

    This has helped me avoid conflict escalation. My one and only auto accident was with a man who had recently been hit by another person in my age and gender demographic.(40-something female) He had been so upset by that person’s non-apologetic actions that he was already expecting a fight when he came up to me. Insurance companies tell you not to admit blame, but my first instinct was to express regret, which calmed him down quickly. He told me about his emotional attachment to his ruined running boards (gift from his mother!) I just kept repeating the sincere apology and he told me that since I was so nice he was not going to sue me! We were then able to meet calmly with the responding police officer. No ticket- the accident was both our faults.

  19. posted by Krys on

    @Ruth: I agree with your rant! It’s a pet peeve of mine, too. I don’t consider anything that contains language like that an apology. It’s a cop-out.

    @Kathryn: I absolutely agree that voicing a commitment to change is appropriate in an apology. I just don’t think one needs to explain *what* happened in order to say “it won’t happen again”.

    @Rebecca: Sorry may not fix it, but is sure does take the sting off. As Another Deb mentioned, an apology will go a long way toward rebuilding goodwill – your actions will take you the rest of the way.

  20. posted by Liberty on

    While Mr. Bezos’ apology was well-written, it was also free. Amazon has done nothing material to redress the crime, or their ability to repeat the crime.

    Mr. Bezos will show his sincerity when he announces that the ability to remotely delete books or cripple them with DRM has been *completely* and *irreversibly* removed from the Kindle. Until that day, words are cheap, and his apology is insincere if not completely disingenuos.

    Beware if you have a Kindle: If you buy a book with it, you don’t own it.

    A related article:

  21. posted by A Different Sarah on

    I disagree with Sarah the PR major. Is that what is taught in most universities? No wonder most companies fail to issue candid apologies such as this. I commend Amazon for being so timely and sincere in their apology, and respect them all the more.

  22. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Liberty — Amazon DID reimburse buyers of the books for their purchases, immediately. No crime was committed.

  23. posted by Liberty on

    @Erin — So if Barnes & Noble sent somebody into your house without your permission to take back a copy of a book and left the refund on your kitchen counter, you’d be okay with the trespass? I bet you’d be calling the cops.

  24. posted by David Albee on

    @everyone: Great discussion! Excellent points all.
    @Sarah (the PR student): hope you don’t take the reactions too personally; hope you take Pat’s suggestion & take this to class (if you haven’t already!)-not only for a discussion of Mr. Bezos’ apology, but also as an excellent example of the impact of social media in a situation like this.
    @tim: I don’t own a Kindle, so I can’t answer this, but maybe you can-does a Kindle come with anything equiv to a EULA (End User License Agreement) like software?

    And finally… (phew!)
    Once again, @everyone: serious discussion aside, I can’t believe I’m the first one to comment on the irony of it all- c’mon, Amazon deleted NINETEEN-EIGHTY-FOUR !?!? from everyone’s Kindle… it could only have been worse if it had been Fahrenheit 451!

  25. posted by Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome on

    I used to be known as “Excuses Man” because when apologizing I liked to explain my thought processes to show that I was thinking I was doing good.

    My intentions don’t matter though – it’s the perceived results and for those I apologize when necessary, simply and directly.

    Of course, sometimes the apologize is “sorry you feel that way” rather than an apology for my actions because sometimes the offense is in the mind of the other person and I won’t apologize for that.

  26. posted by MJ Ray on

    Yes, it’s a pretty good example of an apology that people liked. Shame it was buried in their forums.

    On the actual unselling, I’m with Liberty – an apology alone isn’t enough. Now Amazon must put actions with its apology. I wrote more on my thoughts about this at

  27. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Liberty — When I bought the book at the bookstore, if I signed an agreement that said “It’s okay, bookstore, you can come into my house and steal my book at any time,” then the cops would just laugh in my face when I called them. The cops would say, “Um, you knew this was a possibility. YOU signed the agreement giving the bookstore access to your house and this book. We’re not going to arrest anyone if the only thing they took was this book.”

    Do I think it’s a great way to conduct business? No. But, based upon the Kindle use agreement (and the words of my friends who are lawyers), it appears to have been perfectly legal.

  28. posted by Liberty on

    @David Albee — The Kindle comes with a click-through EULA, and an abusive one at that (link below). It strips away rights we take for granted with a paper book: The right to read it when, where, and how we like. The right to share it with a friend. The right to sell it or donate when we are done with it. The right to keep it even when we no longer do business with the bookstore we bought it from. All those rights are surrendered when you buy a book from Amazon with the Kindle.

    That last right is particularly troubling. All Kindle books bought from Amazon are crippled with Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and can only be read when they are decoded with a key provided by Amazon. When Amazon terminates your account, the key is destroyed and all the books you thought you “bought” become unreadable, with no way to recover them even if you have a backup (it can’t be decoded either). It’s already happened.

    @Erin — The further irony (in addition to which books were deleted) is that besides stripping fundamental rights, the EULA does not authorize Amazon to steal books from your Kindle without your permission. I’ve read the EULA, and read analyses of it by lawyers, and nowhere do I see where it authorizes Amazon to come into your home and take your property without your permission or due process. The most relevant section appears to be the second paragraph of section 3. That also happens to be the section that strips you of the right to read a book when, where, and how you want. The EULA:

    Even if it is legal, why would you ever agree to give up your fundamental rights? For a little convenience?

    Apropos that 1984 was the book that was repossessed, what with the Party slogans of “Ignorance is Strength”, and “Freedom is Slavery”! Oh, how our Freedom goes gently into that good night…

  29. posted by Jacqui Paulson on

    I would just like to say that I think an apology is the opportunity for someone to say, I would have done it differently if I could and if I can fix the circumstances, I will.

    Excuses are the basis for an apologyy, providing they don’t remove the apology or make the person sound as if what they did didn’t matter.

    When we have been wronged, we want to know that the other party is concerned about that and that they intend to either fix it or at the very least, not to do it again.

  30. posted by Eli Sarver on

    It’s funny because I’m reading the book “Atlas Shrugged” and a running “gag” in the book is industrial captains making halfhearted apologies and then punting the blame to a supplier above them.

    An apology like that of Mr. Bezos is refreshing. I wish more companies would cut the “but” from their apologies, and stop blaming market forces and other “externalities” for their failures.

    When I make a mistake at work, I always apologize. Even when I think it’s not fair, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to stubbornly resist taking blame. The embarrassment lasts only a moment, but the integrity you show in the situation will last far longer.

  31. posted by Zac on

    Effective communication starts with an understanding of purpose and keeping your message focused to the issue at hand.

    The practice of effective communication includes any correspondance with another individual in a professional capacity. As someone who works remotely everyday as a tele-worker, I’ve had to train myself to make the most out of every email and voice-message.

    In regards to apologies, I would argue that the most effective professionals, (in any field), are those who know how to gracefully take responsability for their wrong-doing. That includes the little day-to-day issues, and the big screw-ups with lots of public visibility.

    I have no issue with how Amazon handled this situation. It was an unfortunate blunder, that was egregiously mishandled, but the CEO took it on the chin for the company in order to save face with their customers. That’s the definition of class. Unfortunately they’ve had some practice in recent memory with this type of thing, and one could argue that they have clearly learned (the hard way) from their mistakes on how to manage public perception of a major issues.

    This Kindle mishap was handled very effectively, where the issue with their tracking system re-cataloging certain LGBT books as “obscene” was handled VERY poorly.

  32. posted by Rebecca on

    To my responders, who criticize the maxim that sorry doens’t fix anything, I clarify: I never said don’t apologize. I just said that constant talking without making an effort to correct the problem is insincere and inefficient, and having worked in customer service (to the rich and demanding), and also lived in the south, I can still tell you that all talk and no action won’t get you very far, because no one wants to be told sorry and handed an empty promise.

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