May 06, 2004

A tin ear

Well brought-up children are taught how to perform the speech acts of apology and thanking politely and appropriately in the proper social circumstances. But some just don't get it. Some people won't or can't apologize, or have no idea how to (I pointed out one case in this post about Steve Rose). Recently President George W. Bush arrived at a point where the only reasonable thing to do was to say that he was deeply sorry. But he just couldn't or wouldn't. Instead he blurted out lines like "I want to tell the people of the Middle East that the practices that took place in that prison are abhorrent and they don't represent America" (see the transcript) -- a defiant assertion of rectitude and lack of responsibility, the opposite of an apology.

He could have said something a lot more like this: "I deeply regret the shocking and dishonorable acts of cruelty and pointless humiliation that have been permitted to occur under my leadership; I feel deep shame over what has happened and I offer my sincere and unqualified apology." I for one would have respected him more if he had.

It is a vital part of a top official's job, and above all of a chief executive's job, to know how to say the right things to the right people, phrasing them appropriately. But our president simply has a tin ear for how to speak to people. An Egyptian journalist reported in an NPR interview yesterday that at the end of each of his two on-camera interviews with Bush, the president had said the same thing to the interviewer once the cameras were off: "Good job." The subtle insult was noticed. "Good job" is what a journalism instructor might say to an undergraduate student after an interview exercise for which he would be getting a B+, or to a flunky who had done as instructed. Bush could have said: "I want to thank you for the opportunity you've allowed me to speak directly to your audience in the Arab world. I value it greatly. Please convey my greetings and best wishes on behalf of the American people to all the staff of your organization." It would have cost nothing, and earned good will. But as I say, sadly, the president simply has a tin ear for appropriate language.

[Note added later: As of May 6 and 7, American newspapers are reporting that President Bush apologized during an appearance in the Rose Garden with King Abdullah II of Jordan. He did not. He said, describing an earlier private meeting, "I told him I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by Iraqi prisoners..." That is a claim about his earlier linguistic behavior in a private meeting of which we don't have a transcript. I don't know what utterances he used when talking to the King. But "I'm sorry this happened" is not an apology (it's an expression of regret); "I feel sorry for the prisoners" is not (it's an expression of pity); and so on. There many ways to weasel around with the word sorry and not actually apologize. If this president told a lie about matters of what speech acts had taken place, it would not be the first time, as I pointed out in my very first Language Log post.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 6, 2004 04:56 PM