The words “I’m sorry” deserve an apology.

A phrase that should be a meaningful request for forgiveness is often used as a bargaining chip to gain back public acceptance or force someone else to admit guilt, whether they believe it or not.

The biggest mea culpa culprit is the public apology. Asking forgiveness directly and privately from a wronged party, even if insincere, at least shows some humility. Asking a blanket apology to “anyone I may have offended” is a cheap and easy way to call a take-back on a gaffe.

It’s a slick PR game, and it’s nothing new. Go back to the reign of Roman Emperor Henry IV, who hiked across the Alps in 1077 to ask forgiveness and a reversal of his excommunication from his religious nemesis Pope Gregory VII. Henry had been appointing his own bishops, a no-no in the age when church and state were tightly woven.

Henry knelt in the snow for three days before the pope relented and offered both re-entry to the church and forgiveness. But three years later Henry used his power, in part because of his renewed position in the church, and booted Pope Gregory from his position.

A for show, F for sincerity.

In more modern examples, Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, Mark Sanford and a whole host of others have made apologies for sexual indiscretion from the podium to an audience of cameras and microphones, asking forgiveness from their wives, families and loved ones. Why do we all need to hear that too?

To be fair, in the political arena it would be stupid not to broadcast your apology as widely as possible. It plays well. Sanford, a governor of South Carolina who spent a solid month apologizing for an affair which took him to Argentina on the taxpayer’s dime, was censured but later elected to the House of Representatives.

Not every apology to a wide audience is bad. When someone realizes they’ve made a blunder that hurt people they don’t know, it’s appropriate to admit the mistake and make amends. But watch out for those aggrieved parties who use the victim tag to demand a public apology.

As everyone in a relationship knows, you don’t feel better when you get an apology you’ve demanded from your partner. While it may be a sign you’ve won an argument, it’s not a true gesture of contrition. It’s more like forcing a tap out once you’ve pinned your opponent.

So what should a real apology look like?

This is coming straight from recent lessons with my three-year-old daughter, but an apology should include the offense. “I’m sorry for ...” It’s not a password to make someone else like you again, it’s a recognition of a specific wrongdoing. And frankly, if you can’t come to a place where you truly believe you were in the wrong, the apology is a lie. Go back to your room and think about it a little bit longer.

Also, seek forgiveness from those you have hurt or offended, not a pardon from those who aren’t involved. If you come to a place where you realize you have erred, make it right with the right people. And sometimes that’s more than words. Same goes when your trespass extends to people you don’t know.

Part of growing as a person is realizing you aren’t infallible and learning to reconcile your differences with others. Humility is a virtue, and should be part of every apology.

While the PR machine for D.C. and Hollywood shows no sign of slowing down, we can at least refuse to follow its lessons on contrition.

Daniel Wattenburger is the managing editor of the East Oregonian. Contact him at dwattenburger@eastoregonian.com, 541-278-2673 or @DWattenburger.

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