Misunderstanding the Apology

May 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

In 2010, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda effusively apologized for problems with Prius accelerators, and Americans were basically unmoved.  Nine years prior, the USN submarine Greeneville collided with and sank the high school training ship Ehime Maru off of Hawaii, and Japan brimmed with resentment when Commander Scott Waddie did not immediately apologize.

What’s going on?  What’s the right thing to say?

The answer, of course,  lies in the context of culture.  According to research cited in this month’s Harvard Business Review (Why “I’m Sorry” Doesn’t Always Translate.  Maddux, Kim, et. al), U.S. students apologize 4.51 times/week.  Japanese students apologize 11.05.  Is it because we in the U.S. screw-up less?   Likely not.

Every culture has it’s own expectation – and translation –  of the apology.  In India, apologies are far less common than in Japan.  In Hong Kong, apologizing is so common, that the culture is habituated to them, and many a speaker has been advised to include an apology as part of their opening in order to endear themselves to the crowd.

According to Maddux’s work, the core issue is around perception of culpability.  In America, we view an apology as an admission of guilt (my insurance agent has warned me to avoid apologizing after involvement in an auto accident).  As in other Western cultures, where events are attributed to individual actions (just think about the attention given the MVP after a TEAM victory) – it’s not surprising that in the U.S.,  an apology is taken to mean “I am the one who is responsible.”

In Japan, a culture noted for attention to relationship and group cohesiveness, an apology is received as an expression of eagerness to repair the damage the relationship may have suffered – with no guilt implied. The apology in Japan and in similar Eastern cultures also serves as a method of communicating empathy or sympathy – a way of keeping the connection going even when damage has occurred.

This difference in meaning affects how much traction an apology gains in the eyes of it’s beholder.

The Take-Away:   In the rush to globalize ourselves, it’s worth noting such differences in the use of an apology as a tool to facilitate negotiations, resolving conflicts, repairing trust, and building relationships

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§ One Response to Misunderstanding the Apology

  • John Kerrick says:

    Nice piece, Allen – clear and thought-provoking. That apology serves such varied purposes is an eye-opener for me.

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