Random House canceled its five-year contract with Paula Deen today, in what seems to me like the final nail in the coffin of her public life and her career. Since she allegedly admitted to using the N-word and wanting black waiters to play the roles of slaves at a wedding party, multiple sponsors and partners have broken ties with the Food Network star, leading many to question the future of her brand.
There are plenty of news sources covering the excruciating details of this story, but I want to ask one question here:
What would have happened to Paula Deen’s career had she just said, first and foremost, “I’m sorry”?
Here’s a 13 minute video from her Today Show interview of her so-called apology. The entire video is fascinating to watch, but one line, near the beginning, caught my attention immediately. Matt Lauer asks Deen, “Why are you here?” She responds with, “I want people to know who I am.”
She goes on to do everything except apologize. She talks about how the young people in her kitchens throw nasty names around. She says she hates no one more than liars and thieves. She tearfully tells us about her 9-year-old grandson who doesn’t tell lies. She insists that she would never intentionally hurt another person. The she ends with, “I is what I is, and I’m not changing. And — there’s someone evil out there that saw what I had worked for and they wanted it.”
She’s not apologizing. She’s defending her image. She either can’t, or won’t, simply say, “I was wrong, and I’m sorry.”
Paul Greenberg at Discovery News, taking a psychological bend to the topic, says, “If [Paula Deen] made one glaring error during her apologies, according to experts, it was focusing too much on her feelings, and not enough on those that she may have hurt with her words.”
Had she focused on mending the harm that she caused, instead of focusing on the harm others caused her, not only could she have potentially saved her career, but it would have made those she hurt feel a little more whole.
It’s a lesson that we can all take from this: When someone accuses us of doing harm, our first instinct may be defensive. It’s our self-preservation kicking in, and is totally natural, understandable, and relatable. However, when this happens, our first response should be to seek understanding. How have you harmed the other? Just like you wouldn’t want someone to assume anything about your intentions, don’t assume anything about theirs.
Once you have heard their side, before you give any justifications for your actions, say, “I’m sorry I hurt you.” Regardless of the situation, the other’s feelings are just as valid as your own, and you need to acknowledge them.
Then, whatever you say after that is bolstered by the fact that you let down your pride, showed that you were human, and moved first to make amends.