It may be a tangled web we weave when at first we practice to deceive, as Shakespeare once wrote, but in America an apology can rip that web down pretty quickly.
Whether accused of groping women or behaving violently at a sporting event, saying sorry can have a huge positive impact on how the public feels about high-profile personality perpetrators, while those who lie, fry.
When allegations surfaced in print that Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) had groped several women, Schwarzenegger — then running in the California gubernatorial recall election — confessed before some people probably even finished reading the newspaper.
But it's not just the effort that impresses, public figures must choose their words carefully before a public that feels betrayed.
"I have offended people, and to those people who I have offended I am deeply sorry about that and I apologize because that is not what I tried to do," he said at a rally in San Diego.
For Schwarzenegger, the classic "I'm sorry" wasn't the choice oratory offering.
“Where there's smoke there's fire, that is true, so I want to say yes, I have behaved badly,” he said mere days before becoming California's next governor.
Asking for forgivness "sounds too wimpy in an age when society seeks warrior leadership in an unstable world, said Dr. Renana Brooks, a psychologist in Washington, D.C.
“People want a leader that has strength and nothing can destroy them or bring them down. If someone says, ‘I’m sorry,’ that’s a wimp — you can smell weakness and the other side will kill you.”
Former President Bill Clinton became a classic example of how the public reacts when you don’t fess up upon uttering the now infamous words: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Lis Wiehl, a former federal prosecutor, said an upfront apology about his relationship with one-time intern Monica Lewinsky (search) may have saved Clinton. “If he’d just come out and said ‘I‘m sorry, I had sex with Monica and I apologize … he wouldn’t have been impeached. He wasn’t impeached for having sex. He was impeached for lying.”
To repent is too elaborate and emotional these days, said Brooks. “People would much rather have a sound bite — it’s zero steps to forgiveness.”
This easy acceptance is indicative of how people want to be treated in their own lives, she explained. “They feel overwhelmed with the problems in their own lives and know they are going to make all kinds of mistakes. They want it to be that easy for themselves, and think all mistakes can be washed away by a simple ‘Let’s put this behind us.’”
But nothing is very simple when it comes to allegations of criminal wrongdoing.
Martha Stewart (search) refused to say much of anything when allegations of insider trading surfaced. Now, she faces a criminal trial.
“Martha Stewart is not being prosecuted for insider trading, but for covering it up. If she had just come forward and said ‘I didn’t know what I was doing, I was following a friend’s advice, I’m really sorry' things would be very different for her now," Wiehl said. "From a tactical and moral standpoint it’s better to come clean.”
In July, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant (search) professed innocence to a felony sexual assault charge filed against him in Colorado.
"I am innocent of the charges filed today," he said. "I did not assault the woman who is accusing me. I made the mistake of adultery. I have to answer to my wife and my God for my actions that night and I pray that both will forgive me."
Wiehl said the timing of Bryant’s apology smells. “The only thing Kobe has admitted to is adultery — when he knew DNA evidence would reveal he’d have sex with this woman.”
Of course Bryant’s not the first celebrity to apologize before the press.
“These high-profile apologies are always strategic,” Heath Shackleford, a public relations representative in Nashville, Tenn., said in an e-mail interview. “That doesn’t mean they are phony, but it does mean they are a part of a conscious effort to manage a reputation.”
But the most effective apologies don’t try to bury the truth with expressions like “that’s in the past,” Shackleford said, but instead take ownership of the problem, and explain how it won’t happen again.
This vagueness in the modern-day mea culpa is also intentional, said Brooks. “They use empty language, to make sure no one can disagree … leave your speech open enough that it can be interpreted any way.”
A day after the New York Yankees' bench coach Don Zimmer (search) left his seat to charge Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez, he made a straightforward apology for his role in the bench-clearing brawl that marred Game 3 of the American League championship series and sent him to the hospital.
"I'm embarrassed at what happened," Zimmer said, crying at a press conference. "I'm embarrassed for the Yankees, the Red Sox, the fans, the umpires and my family."
While some responded to this apology with admiration, saying Zimmer was quick to do it and was sincere, others said his many years in baseball and leadership positions should’ve taught him to control his anger.
“I think the American public is running out of patience with apologies,” said Shackleford. “We don’t really want to hear ‘I’m sorry’ anymore. We want to hear how you are making things right and that you are assuming responsibility.”