Oops and Oy

In Apologetic rhetoric, Business writing, Rhetorical analysis on May 12, 2012 at 1:57 am

I’m a fan of Kiva. As a lender, I receive occasional emails from Kiva. Recently, they made a mistake. It wasn’t a big mistake, just a coding error in an email that caused some coding to display in the text. It turns out, the email was a test that was unintentionally sent. Soon after, Kiva sent another email, an apology email.


Let me start by saying that sending an apology email was a nice step. First, it helped ease any fears that recipients may have had (after all, people tend to worry when anything seems out of the ordinary in emails regarding financial matters). Second, it shows that the company takes its responsibility seriously and is transparent about issues.

That said, the apology displays some interesting subtle characteristics. First, the email uses humor to lighten the mood—such as using a subject line that read “Oops” and beginning the email text with “Oy.” Humor isn’t appropriate in very many apologetic situations, but it seems to work in this situation since the coding error in the email didn’t really cause any harm to lender accounts (just embarrassment for Kiva).

Second, although the text does state “our apologies” in the middle of the email, it’s not really a case of mortification (which Kenneth Burke said takes place when the accused “admits wrongful behavior, asks for forgiveness, and apologizes”). Instead, the email functions more like an example of shifting blame and evading responsibility.

The email shifts blame through scapegoating—that is, by blaming the employee who made the mistake. The company even went so far as to say that the employee is being teased relentlessly by his colleagues, thus further separating or dissociating (to use Chaïm Perelman’s term) the employee from the company. In that sense, this short email from Kiva functions in the way that Erving Goffman described apologies. According to Goffman, the accused essentially splits himself into two parts during an apology. Those two parts consist of the guilty side and the side that “stands back and sympathizes with the blame giving, and, by implication, is worthy of being brought back into the fold” (p. 113). In this case, the company identifies the “employee” as the “guilty side” and then stands back with the rest of us to look upon the guilty employee.

In addition, the email evades responsibility by claiming that the entire error was an accident (which is a strategy described by William Benoit in numerous articles and in his book “Accounts, Excuses, and Apologies”).

Overall, the email effectively communicates that the previous email was an error and that there is not a problem with the recipient’s account. Additionally, although humor is not often appropriate in a corporate apology (for example, see the bad example provided by Southwest Airlines over the years), it seems to work well in this case since there was no actual harm committed.

That said, those elements could have been effectively communicated without scapegoating the employee. Instead, Kiva could simply have stated that “we” made a mistake during email testing, etc. Doing so would have demonstrated that the company is willing to accept responsibility for mistakes that it makes (or that its employees make in its name).

Of course, this was a minor issue and Kiva took an important step by even sending the email. And so, as I said at the beginning, I’m still a lender and fan of Kiva.

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