Grading Will Smith’s Apology to Chris Rock

The slap heard around the world, otherwise known as Will Smith smacking Chris Rock in the face at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony after Rock made a joke at the expense of Smith’s wife, has been the buzz of social media and pop culture.

Less than an hour after the embarrassing debacle, Smith won the Oscar for Best Actor (awkward!), and gave a quasi-apology/acknowledgment of his juvenile actions mixed with an excuse for his bad behavior. After having some time to think about it, and probably at the behest of his handlers in an attempt to minimize the negative backlash, Smith issued an apology on Instagram.

Let’s take a look at his apology and assign it a letter grade to gauge its effectiveness. Take a seat. Class is in session.

Here’s the full text of Smith’s apology:

The first step in an effective apology is to acknowledge what you did and admit your wrongdoing. Smith addresses the issue head on by stating the violent way he acted is poisonous and destructive and his behavior was unacceptable and inexcusable. Strong start to the apology. Letter Grade = A, Excellent.

Great apologies refrain from using conditional language and making excuses. Using words like if and but weaken the apology, shift blame away from your behavior, and sound like you’re justifying your actions. Unfortunately, after a strong start, Smith fell prey to this common trap. After stating there was no excuse for his behavior, what did he do? He made an excuse by saying, “but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally.” He would have been better served to simply say, “Jokes at my expense are a part of the job and I was out of line to react emotionally.” Short, sweet, to the point, and no excuses. Letter Grade = C, Average.

Another element of an effective apology is to express remorse for your actions and the harm it caused the other party. Smith’s expression of remorse includes him saying he was embarrassed about his actions, there’s no place for violence in this world, and stating regret over his behavior staining the awards ceremony. A notable omission is any sort of acknowledgment about the harm he inflicted on Chris Rock. Although Smith says, “I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris,” he doesn’t say a word about the extreme embarrassment and humiliation it must have caused Rock to be assaulted on live television in front of millions of viewers.

Notably, Smith used the word apologize versus sorry. The two words are often used interchangeably in regards to giving an apology, but there are important differences in their meanings. Apologize is a verb. It’s the act of acknowledging and taking ownership for a mistake. Sorry is an adjective. It’s the feeling of remorse, regret, or sorrow over one’s action. Apologize is something you do. Sorry is how you feel. Letter Grade = C, Average.

Finally, a good apology includes a commitment to not repeating the behavior in the future. It’s the bookend to acknowledging and admitting what you did wrong, and shows that you understand you need to learn, grow, and take steps to not engage in that behavior in the future. Smith attempts to communicate that he understands there is room for growth by saying he’s a work in progress, but he could have been more explicit about his plan of action. Simply saying, “I’m going to learn and grow from this experience so that I react in more peaceful ways in the future” would have sufficed. At best, Smith’s apology falls short in this regard. At worse, his “work in progress” comment sounds like another excuse. Letter Grade = C, Average.

Overall Grade = C, Average.

You might say I’m a tough grader, and you’d be right. I have a high standard for what trustworthy behavior looks like and what constitutes a good apology when one falls short of that mark. Assigning a grade of C is actually a pretty decent score in today’s world. Most public figures do a poor job of apologizing, so it doesn’t take much to stand apart from the crowd.

How would you grade Will Smith’s apology? Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts.

8 Comments on “Grading Will Smith’s Apology to Chris Rock

  1. Randy, I for one appreciate your high standards. More people should have them, you are a great example of leading with trust. An authentic apology means so much to building trust. I especially appreciate the lines, “Great apologies refrain from using conditional language and making excuses. Using words like if and but weaken the apology, shift blame away from your behavior, and sound like you’re justifying your actions.” So well said.

    • Thank you, Danise. It takes mindfulness for us to be aware and intentional in the language we use. Words matter!

  2. I’m sorry that your “analysis” gives a “C” for apology. Assaulting someone is never acceptable, in a public forum is completely unacceptable. The joke was just that and Chris is known for that, Will has done this many times and so should have shown a better attitude than slapping a performer.

    • Hi Ronald and thanks for your feedback. I agree that physically assaulting someone is never acceptable. Will Smith definitely gets an F- in that regard. My grade of C was strictly related to his apology, not his actions that evening.

  3. In this complicated scenario surrounding Will Smith and his response to Chris Rock insulting his wife, is the notion of culture.

    I have spoken to some Black women and men who defended Will Smith for standing up for his wife.

    As an American Indian/Alaska Native from Robeson County, NC, and a product of one of the most violent counties in the USA, the kind of violence displayed by Will Smith is a routine behavior rooted in survival.

    Let’s not forget Will Smith’s unforgettable experience of seeing his own father physically abuse his mother.

    To say all violence is wrong or to say all violence is right misses the canvas this unfortunate incident is painted on.

    Would Hollywood run Jesus Christ out of town for beating the money changers in front of the temple for desecrating a holy place of worship.

    I think it would behoove all of us to check our privilege at the door when it comes to judging Will Smith.

    The real issue in this drama is not the elimination of Will Smith and Chris Rock but the elimination of the culture of physical and verbal violence that created Will Smith and Chris Rock. Then and only then will the subordinate groups disproportionately impacted by violence be seen in a different light by those privileged Monday night quarterbacks whose fragile lives will never have to put up with the burdens of those trying to make it in a White world.

  4. Thank you for clarifying the difference between “I apologize” and “I’m sorry.” There is always a natural reaction to hearing what others say or don’t say when apologizing and your points will have me listening more, first. I intend to use your examples as a guideline for crafting my own apologies in the future. Again, thank you.

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