Nadia Bilchik, CNN editorial producer, called me requesting my analysis of Paula Deen’s apology of using racial slurs. I analyzed Paula’s second video apology, the one she gave after missing her Today Show interview with Matt Lauer. Paula’s body language tells a story of stress and anxiety. While she was talking, Paula held her clasped hands tightly in front of her stomach with her elbows by her side. At times she rubbed her fingers on her hands, played with her fingers and picked at her fingernails. Using one part of our body to touch or caress another part of our body is known as pacifying behaviors. Think of how parents tend to pacify their children when they get hurt. Parents will rub or brush off their children’s knees, for example, when they fall. This pacifying behavior is soothing and calming. When people are nervous or anxious they tend to soothe themselves through pacifying behaviors.
Second, Paula demonstrated closed body language, which isn’t typical for her. She sat relatively stiff in her chair and didn’t take up much space. When people are stressed or anxious, they tend to hold their bodies rather stiffly and not use a lot of hand gestures. This is exactly what Paula showed in the video. Her body language suggests that she’s feeling uncertain. However, we don’t know the reasons behind these behaviors.
Third, Paula’s facial expressions were a bit enigmatic. Although her furrowed forehead suggested she was stressed, I didn’t see facial expressions of sadness or embarrassment, which would be a typical response in her situation. However, this doesn’t mean that she isn’t sad or embarrassed. I’m just saying that I didn’t see any facial expressions indicating such emotions. When people apologize we expect to see some type of emotion that they’re genuinely sorry or remorseful for their actions.
Fourth, I found a genuine sentiment in Paula’s apology. When she said, “but it’s in the heart. What’s in the heart…” and turned both of her hands inward and her fingertips touched her chest. The gesture came a second before her words. When gestures occur before words then they’re considered sincere because one has to think the thought first before they demonstrate the action.
Fifth, there was an incongruence between her words, “I’m so sorry” and her head shake. Shaking her head “no” while saying, “I’m so sorry” gives the impression that her apology isn’t sincere. Although research indicates there’s no relationship between head nods or headshakes and lying, this verbal and nonverbal mismatch doesn’t convey sincerity.
Switching gears to analyze Paula Deen’s words, her apology was vague. Phrases such as “hurtful to a lot of people.” “Offer an apology to those who I have hurt.” “I offer my sincere apology to those who I have hurt.” are non-specific. We don’t know what she’s apologizing for or to whom. By not being specific about whom she hurt, she is putting an emotional distance between herself and her actions. This emotional distance undermines the sincerity of her apology. Not once did Paula specifically state that she’s apologizing for using racial slurs. In actuality, we don’t know what she’s apologizing for. Perhaps, she wasn’t specific because of pending litigation. Without accepting responsibility for using racial slurs, Paula’s apology doesn’t come across as sincere.