Oprah Winfrey to Switzerland (and parents): There's a wrong way to apologize

Oprah Winfrey was taken aback when Switzerland contacted her to apologize for comments a store clerk made to the TV star. We hear you Oprah – superfluous apologies are not to be encouraged.

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
Oprah Winfrey's latest statement about Switzerland's apology to her on account of the store clerk who wouldn't show Ms. Winfrey a purse

While Paula Deen admitted in a court deposition that she had used the 'N-word' in the past, it was the series of ill-received public apologies that drove away fans and sponsors. She should have taken a lesson from Oprah Winfrey’s recent advice to the nation of Switzerland on the etiquette of public mea culpas.

If you missed it, Oprah Winfrey recently told the story of the time a clerk at an upscale Zurich boutique refused to show her a $38,000 purse.

The clerk apparently did not recognize Ms. Winfrey and assumed she “could not afford it.” The story caused a tiff and the nation of Switzerland apologized directly to Winfrey.

That’s when Winfrey then took a moment to parent the world – she got us talking about when and how to make a proper apology.

“Swiss tourism officials and the boutique owner apologized for the incident last week, but Winfrey insists there's no need,” the Associated Press reported.

Then the star set the world straight on when an apology is necessary and who should make it.

"It's not an indictment against the country or even that store," she continued. "It was just one person who didn't want to offer me the opportunity to see the bag. So no apologies necessary from the country of Switzerland. If somebody makes a mistake in the United States do we apologize in front of the whole country? No!"

Winfrey’s right, plus she got apologies from all the wrong parties. The clerk was the one who needed to send Winfrey a very heartfelt note of regret with the hope it would get through her “people” to find her. (However, the clerk disagrees with Winfrey's version of events and says that she didn't do anything wrong.)

If one of my sons does something wrong I send him to apologize and, when necessary, to make amends. If you offend one person, you apologize to that person. At our house you fix what you broke, call it the Winfrey-Suhay First Law of Apologies.

Textbook example? Oprah’s apology to Ellen DeGeneres. Ms. DeGeneres, scheming to get on the cover of Winfrey’s O, The Oprah Magazine, called Winfrey but was put on hold for 11 minutes.

How did Winfrey apologize? She sent DeGeneres a personal note of apology and 500 cupcakes for her studio audience.

Now that’s how we apologize here in Norfolk, Va. – with food.

When I moved here about 10 years ago, someone I knew offended a friend and needed to mend the relationship. She took me over to a place called Rowena’s Cakes and Teas.

“In Norfolk we apologize with one of these cakes,” my friend explained.

As a Yankee, I failed to see how that was possible. I knew the back-story, and my friend was going to need a truckload of cake to fix the problem. Then I tried the samples and decided more research was necessary.

I was introduced to the founder of the shop, Rowena Fullinwider, and I asked her if it was true that cake apologies were popular in the South.

“Oh yes!” she said. “You can say sorry all day long, but when you give someone food it gives them a chance to accept the apology gracefully by inviting you to sit and share it with them. Then you can have some tea and move on.”

Perhaps, in the final analysis, that shop clerk in Zurich should include some of Switzerland’s famous chocolates with the note to Winfrey.  

After all, apologies are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you might get out of them.

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