March 11, 2008

Repenting in Public

Linguists get their data from many places, as any Language Log reader knows, but the daily news is always a fertile source. We've dealt with science reporting, warning labels, apologies, and simple news stories, to name only a few. But I don't recall seeing much about the speech event of repentance on this site. Goodness knows we've had lots of examples, especially from fallen evangelists and religious leaders who got into considerable ethical trouble.

Today's Washington Post and New York Times accounts of Governor Eliot Spitzer's orchestrated appearance before cameras is an immediate example. The Post called it a "ritual of repentance." We'll see. Spitzer appears to follow a formula that looks like what linguists call a speech event--in this case a repentance speech event, except he doesn't quite get to the repentance part.

Dell Hymes orginally named these language phenomena "communication events," but this designation has been more or less replaced these days by "speech events, " which are structured activities that reflect the way people belong to or are involved in the social life of a specific community. In Spitzer's case, the specific community seems to be public officials who are caught (or appear to be caught) in acts for which, well, repenting is a good thing to do.

So what is the structure of the speech act of repentance? There appear to be six phases:

1. Carefully choose the best place to do it. Pick your own office, if possible, never on the street. Make it appear that you are still in control, no matter what happens later. Have an American flag behind you. Speak from a lectern. Wear a red tie. Control.

2. Have your family, especially your wife, standing next to you. Begin with, "I want to briefly address a private matter." "Briefly" downplays the importance of what you did. "Address" makes it formal and powerful. "Private matter" says it's really nobody's business but your own.

3. Admit wrong-doing in a general way. Don't be specific because the fact has already come out and it doesn't need to be repeated endlessly, especially by you.

4. Frame an apology without specifics. Stress your family. Say you've  "disappointed," but not "disgraced" or "acted illegally."  Spitzer's went like this:

I have acted in a way that violates my obligations to my family and violates my, or any, sense of right and wrong. I apologize first and most importantly to my family. I apologize to the public to whom I promised better. I have disappointed and failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself.

5. Say that you have learned your lesson and you will never do this again (this part of the repentance speech event seems to be missing from Spitzer's appearance). But you don't want to be premature either (keep Senator Larry Craig in mind).

6. Take no questions. No need to be embarrassed further. You've done your job. You've apologized (well, sort of anyway), so leave it at that.

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 11, 2008 12:42 PM