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We're Sorry: Not All Apologies Are Apologies

Politicians take note: Research shows the fine line between claiming regret and taking responsibility.
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Variations on “I’m sorry” are playing an increasingly prominent part in our public and private discourse, with figures as diverse as Charlie Sheen and the CEO of BP making widely circulated statements of remorse. In an era of truth commissions, demands for redress of historical grievances, and humiliating revelations of personal indiscretions, apologizing has evolved into a nuanced ritual, one that has attracted the interest of researchers from a variety of disciplines. Some studies provide insights into the effectiveness of apologies and explore the fine line between expressing regret and taking responsibility.

The non-apology apology 
There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but Zohar Kampf tells us there are 14 ways to offer a non-apology apology. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem assistant professor of communications delineated them for a 2008 article in the Journal of Pragmatics. To determine “how public figures realize creative forms of apologetic speech in order to minimize their responsibility for misdeeds,” Kampf examined 354 conditional apologies made by Israeli public figures, organizations, or institutions between 1997 and 2004, breaking them down into specific categories and sub-categories.

One type of pseudo-apology downplays the transgressor’s degree of responsibility. Kampf identifies five variations on this theme, noting that a wrongdoer can: 1) apologize while undermining the claim that he offended someone; 2) apologize for the outcome but not for the act; 3) apologize for the style but not for the essence; 4) apologize for a specific component of the offense but not for the entire occurrence; and 5) apologize while using syntactic and lexical means to downgrade his responsibility.” The latter category includes referring to an offensive action as a “mistake,” which effectively minimizes guilt.

Another approach: apologizing while simultaneously denying you’ve done anything wrong and fuzzing up the issue of who, if anyone, was injured. After making racist remarks about Ethiopian immigrants, writer Samuel Shnitzer replied with a classic “if” statement: “If someone was hurt by the column I wrote, I am very sorry about that.” Ariel Sharon’s 2002 statement concerning the deaths of Palestinian civilians during a military campaign managed to include both an “if” and a “but”: “The Israeli Defense Force is sorry if civilians were injured, but not for the successful operation.”

As Kampf pointed out, this delicate wordplay is important to politicians who want to keep their jobs. But it’s even more crucial to business executives who, if they truly accepted responsibility, might end up in jail. A research team led by the University of Ulster’s Owen Hargie analyzed the testimony of four CEOs of financial institutions before a committee of the British Parliament in 2009 and noted a similar pattern of obfuscation.

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“The main type of apology used by the senior bankers fell into the ‘I’m sorry you’re sick’ category, where the person is in effect saying that he or she has no personal responsibility for what happened, but recognizes and expresses sympathy for the person’s predicament,” the researchers write in the journal Organization. “One strategy was to emphasize that they were very willing to apologize — and indeed had already done so before and were happy to do so again. However, in their expression of ‘apology,’ they denied personal agency and so responsibility, by stating they were ‘sorry at’ or ‘sorry about’ the ‘turn of events’ that caused the economic maelstrom.” Implying the financial crisis was an unforeseeable disaster, one banker declared: “We are sorry at the effect it has had on the communities we serve.”

Cut to the chase, and save 
While that evasiveness may be understandable, given the possible legal ramifications of candor, a recent study from Germany suggests that, in business transactions, straightforward apologies are surprisingly cost-effective. A trio of researchers led by Johannes Abeler of the University of Nottingham used the German eBay website to conduct a real-world experiment. Via e-mail, they contacted 632 customers who gave a neutral or negative evaluation of a transaction.

One-third of the unhappy customers received a message that included the sentence: “I would like to apologize and ask whether you might withdraw your evaluation.” The others were offered, in place of expression of regret, either 2.5 or 5 euros “as a goodwill gesture.” Writing in the journal Economics Letters, the researchers report nearly 45 percent of those given the apology withdrew their evaluation, compared to only 21 percent of those offered cash. A direct apology: priceless.

Not all apologies are received equally
But this may only show that people who use eBay—and complain about the results—fit a specific psychological profile. University of Maryland psychologists Ryan Fehr and Michele Gelfand reported in a 2010 study that different kinds of apologies are effective for different types of individuals.

Those who view themselves as “unique and autonomous entities” favor “apologies that include offers of compensation,” they wrote in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Those who see themselves as fundamentally connected to others prefer “apologies that include expressions of empathy,” while those whose strongest self-identity is as a member of a group “react most positively to apologies that include acknowledgement of violated rules/norms.” Someone making a public apology would be wise to touch all those bases.

A 2009 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine breaks down responses to apologies along gender lines. Matthew Whited of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center measured the physiological response of people who were verbally harassed while performing a math exercise. For women, blood pressure and heart rate variability levels return to normal more quickly if they received an apology immediately afterward. But, for reasons that aren’t clear, “I’m sorry” did not have a similarly soothing effect on men. Perhaps they were holding out for the euros.

I’m sorry I’m such a class act
In a 2011 paper in the journal Psychological Science, David De Cremer of the Rotterdam School of Management concludes “people overestimate the value and behavioral impact of an apology.” He describes two studies that find “victims who receive apologies in the immediate aftermath of harm do not seem to appreciate the apologies as much as they anticipated they would.”

So why apologize at all? De Cremer provides a somewhat cynical answer: the value of contrition “may lie in convincing observers — and not victims — that the transgressor is a good person.” If your reckless banking practices diminished someone’s life savings, “I’m sorry” isn’t going to cut it. But to potential customers, it sends the important message that you’re willing to own up to your mistakes. Think of it as remorse code.

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