In the age of social media, apologizing is more likely to lead to heartache than forgiveness.
What a great summer it was for people who love apologies. Every day was abuzz with outrage, all those righteous, angry people formed into the daily flash mob. It was rich, wasn’t it? Ryan Lochte telling a TV audience he was sorry for denigrating the good people of Brazil. How sorry was he? Not sorry enough! And Blake Shelton, expressing regret for those jokes he made four years ago. Jokes? Ha! Hey, even Donald Trump was obviously advised to apologize for something—he couldn’t quite articulate what—by his new campaign team, and making this guy apologize for anything is really cruel, you know? Like throwing a cat into a swimming pool.
That’s just a few. We live in a culture of gotcha and sorry, and Twitter twtr drives the hostile, accusatory, triumphant conversation. And even when Twitter doesn’t initiate the apology-generation ritual, it’s the enormous echo chamber in which every offense, from large to small, is amplified and played out until the inevitable outcome—the career death of the apologizer.
Now, the thing that’s lethal about all this from a business perspective is that apologies are, for the most part, ineffective, counterproductive, and just plain stupid. Because (especially for those who have insufficient reservoirs of goodwill with the angry, vengeful, seething populace) an apology is not the end of anything. It’s the beginning of the end.
Let’s say it’s happening to you or your organization. Here’s how it plays out most of the time:
Step 1: You do something that catches the notice of one of the sentries of righteousness. It could be something serious. It could be an ill-advised joke: Why did the chicken cross the road? Way to go, Stand-Up Boy: Now PETA has a petition demanding you apologize to chickens, who often die in the attempt.
Step 2: You apologize. Like sharks trolling the waters for chum, this activates an atavistic hunger muscle in the predator population. It’s blood. But not enough blood. Need more blood. Other sharks are alerted. The waters grow violent with the frenzy for meat.
Step 3: You are alarmed to find that the apology you offered has not been accepted. You’re sorry? How sorry are you? Why didn’t you say you were sorry earlier? Why now? Why not yesterday? What are you going to do about it? Are you going to resign? Will anybody be fired? Why not? Will there be an investigation? Who’s on the panel? And what about that other thing you did in 2011? How about that, huh?
Step 4: You clarify and bumble. The mainstream media have now joined the show and are interviewing people about you. Larger social issues are examined. Those around you begin to wonder whether you’ll survive. Your sponsors abandon you. (For good reason: You’re an idiot!) The fact is, very, very few individuals or business entities can stand up to the kind of relentless professional scrutiny kicked off by a professionally conducted witch hunt driven by apology lust.
Step 5: Crushed and disgraced, you are carried out of town, covered with tar and feathers, and deposited in a nearby ditch.
Now, I’m not saying there aren’t some actions that require an apology. You falsify emission results. You ignore all warnings and your oil rig explodes. You steal billions of dollars from unwary grandmothers. You are caught on video running over a puppy. In such cases, yeah, you’ve got to say you’re sorry. And then expect to reap the well-earned consequences.
Otherwise? Ride it out, baby. Play dead. Wait for the angry badger to get tired of sniffing you and depart to look for something tasty in a nearby garbage can. They always do. Badgers are hungry, but they’re not that smart, and as for attention span, forget about it.
A version of this article appears in the September 15, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “Be Silent, Not Sorry.”