It seems that just about every day a chief executive, politician or other prominent figure is apologizing for something.
Target's chief executive, Gregg W. Steinhafel, apologized for a security breach that affected as many as 110 million customers. Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase apologized, multiple times, for his firm's regulatory lapses. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey apologized for controversial bridge lane closings and traffic jams. The venture capitalist Tom Perkins apologized after comparing the treatment of America's wealthiest to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. LeBron James apologized for using the word "retarded," calling it a "bad habit."
The age of the apology is clearly upon us — and it is not just about being polite. It has become de rigueur, an almost reflexive response among leaders to a mistake or, worse, a true crisis.
The art of the apology has become a carefully choreographed dance: Say you are sorry, show vulnerability, tell everyone you are "taking responsibility" and then end with, "I hope to put this behind me."
If you're questioning the sincerity of this apology movement, there's good reason. Dov Seidman, a careful observer of societal trends and the founder of LRN, a firm that advises companies on their cultures and how they can translate them into better performance, has been tracking the apology trend for many years.
He has become so troubled—and offended—by the ease with which apologies seem to roll off the tongues of our leaders that he called for an "apology cease-fire" in front of several dozen chief executives and politicians at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
He calls the modern apology simply "apology theater."
"The apologies—and the way we react—are so much about the performance. Are those real tears? Are they not real tears?" Mr. Seidman asked. "But we aren't judging the aftermath."
(Read more: Target apologizes for data breach at Senate hearing)
He reminded me that Elton John sang the classic song "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" back in 1976. Apparently, it is not that hard to say anymore.
But what does saying "sorry" mean when it's tossed around with the frequency of a Justin Bieber scandal?
"Apology-washing changes no one, neither the apologizer nor the recipient, because the act regurgitates a social norm rather than launching an emotional process," Mr. Seidman told me.