Faint words of apology: Lenovo and Superfish

We are only human, and each of us screws up on occasion. Large multinational corporates also screw up, and by virtue of their size, when they screw up, they screw up big. Not only that, but recently it seems that quite a few of them have managed to screw up exceptionally big.

When we screw up, the best way out is to apologise. If you are really sure that you have not screwed up, then you may be able to defend yourself successfully – as Apple did over the unfounded claims of ‘Bendygate’ and whether the iPhone 6 case deformed easily – but as soon as you see that you are only digging your hole deeper, it is time to clamber out and admit your error.

The successful apology starts with clear words of contrition. ‘Sorry’ and ‘apologise’ are good, and the less direct you become ‘expressing regret’, perhaps, the weaker and more woolly your contrition becomes. Having made the formal opening of apology, you need to admit what you got wrong, and state clearly and simply what you are doing to rectify it.

To modify the words of the old adage about public speaking, in a good apology you should stand up, fess up, and shut up.

So I was surprised in the wake of Lenovo’s stunning misjudgement over Superfish – in which many of their Windows PCs came pre-installed with adware that was at best intrusive and upsetting, and at worst a major security disaster – they have not managed anything resembling a successful apology.

Reading their statement, and subsequent interview with the Wall Street Journal, blogged here, the word “apologize” is buried in the middle of second paragraph. Lenovo dismissed their error as merely that “it did not meet our expectations or those of our customers”. Other than disabling and removing Superfish (and not installing it any more on their products), all they offer is the vague promise that “by the end of this month, we will announce a plan to help lead Lenovo and our industry forward with deeper knowledge, more understanding and even greater focus on issues surrounding adware, pre-installs and security.”

The great linguist Paul Grice developed the valuable concept of ‘implicature’ to describe what is suggested in an utterance, although neither expressed nor strictly implied by it (see this Wikipedia article for an introduction).

Lenovo’s statement is rich in implicature which their erstwhile customers have not found hard to read. Every comment that I have seen quoted so far reads the same, that its customers ‘will never buy Lenovo again.’

You can hardly blame them, after they don’t even get a proper apology.