#SorryNotSorry: Jeanne Phillips And The Lost Art Of Apologizing

For context: on August 10 a letter from a 24-year-old handled “Offended Daughter” appeared in “Dear Abby,” the advice column currently authored by Jeanne Phillips. It did not go over well and thousands responded. Today, Jeanne Phillips apologized…sort of.

Dear Jeanne,

Just so we’re clear, Merriam-Webster lists three definitions of the noun apology. Number one in their list is “a defense or excuse”; number two is “an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret”; number three is “a poor substitute.” Number two is the definition most of us mean when we use the word and I think that’s what you thought you meant in your response to criticism in today’s column. A true apology in that sense of the word involves two words, either “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” Both of those are complete sentences and need no qualifiers if they’re true. When you start saying things like “I’m sorry, but…” or “I’m sorry if I offended you” then you have ceased apologizing in the sense of expressing regret and started apologizing in the sense of defending or excusing yourself.

You once said of yourself, “If I have any talent, it’s getting to the root of the problem quickly.” This is particularly interesting to me in this case because you not only didn’t get to the root, you missed it entirely. I’m not a therapist any more than you are but I speak fluent Dysfunctional Family. The problem that Offended Daughter brought to you wasn’t her weight, it was that her mother lied about her weight making “other people” uncomfortable. The other people in this instance is HER MOTHER, Jeanne. Offended Daughter has every right to be offended about that, about the fact that her mother can’t own her own issue and deal with her daughter’s clothing choices and instead chooses to foist it on “other people,” using them to try to manipulate her daughter’s behavior. She not only lied to her daughter about what “other people” thought, she tried to act as a gatekeeper between her adult child and other members of their family, her aunts and cousins. Functional people don’t do that. Functional people allow adults to establish and maintain their own relationships and they don’t use those relationships to further their own ends.

The problem that she actually brought to you is a big one but did you acknowledge it? No. She came to you looking for a way to defend herself against her mother’s totally unreasonable, dishonest nonsense and did you recognize that? No. Not only no, but you DID THE EXACT SAME THING to her that her mother did. Her mother appealed to the sensibilities of “other people” and so did you. You gave it the veneer of concern by making it her doctor, but in the end you lobbed this grenade at her: “I suspect that your mother would be prouder of you if you were less complacent and more willing to do something about your weight problem.” To review, Offended Daughter’s “weight problem” is only a problem for her mother. She’s already proud of who she is. Further, you have no freaking clue that she’s “complacent” about her health. She could run marathons for all you know, she could be in excellent health, but her perception of herself — which *I* suspect is hard-won given her mother’s manipulation — doesn’t matter in your view. Her mother’s pride is all that matters here. Do you seriously not see how warped that reasoning is?

So today you printed a letter from Linda in Columbus, Ohio who pointed out, among other things, that you’re not a physician and you have no access to Offended Daughter’s medical records so you really don’t have any idea of the state of her health. This is the part where you said, “If anyone was hurt by my reply, I truly apologize.” Except here’s the thing: the qualification there? The “if”? That already makes your apology untrue. There is a world of difference between saying, “I’m sorry that I hurt you,” and saying, “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” In the first you’re owning that your behavior was hurtful. In the second you’re not owning anything unless the other person acknowledges their hurt or humiliation first, adding insult to injury. In a moment of unbelievably breathtaking cluelessness you talk about how you called Offended Daughter after you printed her original letter and, by golly, she wasn’t offended at all. Right. Like she’d tell you if she was, Jeanne. She handed you a thorny problem, you proceeded to beat her with it in front of 110 million people out of “concern,” why the hell would she hand that stick back to you a second time?

You finished your ridiculous justification today by saying, “As to my comment about her mother, I strongly suspect what I said is true, and I’ll stand by it until I hear from the woman telling me differently.” This is the one thing you said in your entire apologia that rings true. I have no doubt that her mother would be prouder of her if she was a totally different person than who she is right now. That you seem to think this is a good thing, that you’re tacitly approving of a mother who would try to drive a wedge between her daughter and other family members who do accept her as she is right now, is really disturbing. I realize that you would prefer to gloss over that teensy issue, but the fact that you didn’t get what the problem was to begin with, let alone answer the question, makes me glad I stopped reading you or taking you seriously years ago. Sorry.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kelbel75
    Sep 16, 2014 @ 08:12:52

    the “advice” she gave was deplorable but the “sorry” was even worse; filled with excuses and justifications. if you *are* sorry, first you need to state what it is that you did wrong and own that it was your doing/fault, and no one else. you can share a bit about where your head was when you committed the wrong but not so much that it takes the responsibility off of you and puts it somewhere else. otherwise, you’re not really sorry that you hurt the person, you’re just sorry that the situation didn’t turn out in your favor 😉

    Liked by 3 people


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