Saying sorry

Saying sorry is closely related to identity (image) management. It also so happens to have been a theme in my personal and working life this week, hence the blog entry.

In the course of my work related to cross-cultural differences and conflict management, I’ve been particularly interested in perception. My PhD thesis evaluated not only how managers perceived their own conflict management strategies, but also those of the other party. On average, they’d evaluate themselves as problem solving and the other as more dominating (out to win). Obviously, if both parties feel this way, there’s a dissonance in the interpretation of a situation. There are a few key questions that have kept me occupied throughout the years since my PhD research. If there’s a conflict,  whose interpretation of the situation is correct? And if you didn’t intend to upset the other but he/she obviously is, then should you apologise for your actions or for the fact that they’re upset? Moreover, if you find you’re constantly apologising, what does this imply about the relationship?

At a global level, there are many historical conflicts for which a government may choose to apologise, sometimes decades later. The case in point is Russia’s apology this week for Katyn’s mass murder of 20,000 Polish officials, including generals, teachers, diplomats and artists.  Although Russian leaders have acknowledged the issue, an official face to face ‘sorry’ had not taken place.

On the other hand, the media has covered the Catholic church’s response to the child abuse scandal. Although many Catholic priests and officials apologised for what has happened, Pope Benedict XVI ignored the issue in his Easter Day address. Such a tactic has been employed by other leaders too, who refuse to acknowledge mistakes, perhaps viewing it as a sign of weakness or perhaps because they’re ashamed.  Or it could be a move to manage one’s image by covering up for mistakes and then denying or ignoring them when these mistakes have become public.

On a personal level, we may have encountered the situation that someone made a mistake and then, in the aftermath, regrets talking about it. ‘I should’ve not said anything’ could be the response to the hurting party’s anger about a confession. That reaction is a bit like a teenager who admits to crashing his mum’s car and then thinks that next time they’ll just shut up instead of owning up when they get berated. The act of telling becomes the issue, not the actual offence. Or, they’ll stare at the floor, mumble a “yeah, I’m sorry, whatever”, which leaves mum feel unheard and disrespected.

As adults, we’re supposed to know how to manage guilt and deal with apologies.  Some of this is cultural,  for example, in Britain saying sorry is the norm, even for acts that are not your fault. Walk along a British high street and if you bump into a Brit, they’ll likely say sorry. Question is whether the act of saying sorry then becomes meaningless. As a society, we take remorse very seriously: criminals guilty of the same offence may get different punishments depending on the level of regret shown. Much of being able to apologise is personal. It’s indicative of a level of (emotional) intelligence because you are able to acknowledge the other’s upset, even if you a) didn’t intend to upset them or b) don’t quite understand why they’re upset.

Both point A and B are important. As a Dutch person, in my communications I can be very direct, for which I’ve learned to apologise if I see the signs in the other person’s face (usually raised eyebrows and a wry smile). Sometimes though, I tire of this and feel I just can’t get it right. Ironically, when I travel back to Holland I can be quite perturbed about people’s rudeness! It seems that when and to what extent we’re offended or hurt is thus socialised and changes over time.

In terms of learning to manage apologies, the apologiser needs to be ‘forgiven’ and this can be as simple as a ‘thanks, that means a lot’. A hurt party must be wary of playing the victim role continuously and sometimes ‘needs to get over it’ to get things moving along. If you find yourself constantly apologising for yourself, would you consider leaving that relationship if changing it is not possible?

Perhaps this is a controversial viewpoint, but this can also apply at a cultural level. If there’s not a ‘fit’ between your ways and the ways of the group, would you consider leaving if no compromise can be established? I’ve been observing the dynamics between groups of people with differing values and norms – such as strict religion vs secular humanism. On a personal level, I’m intrigued why one would choose to live in a community that does not represent one’s values. I’ve travelled to many places and also lived in a few and in some I feel at home and in others I don’t. I am quite happy to adjust to the ways of a place when I visit it (my friend C and I were appalled at the insensitivity of some European visitors in Zanzibar, seemingly completely unaware that a cropped tank top, bare feet and mini skirt was inappropriate in a restaurant). But if I choose (again, being able to choose is the operative word here) to make a place my home, harmony would be important. Van Vianen and colleagues found that expats adjusted better in terms of interaction when they have Self Transcendent values (universalism and benevolence), which, according to the theory, is in direct opposition to Self Enhancement (power and achievement).

The power of an apology, when sincere, can be tremendous, even after decades after the offence.  Saying sorry is not indicative of a weakness, moreover, it shows maturity, intelligence and character. However,  those on the receiving end of a sincere apology should accept it graciously and express that it makes them feel respected/heard/acknowledged. Finally, if you find that being apologetic has become (part of) your identity, and the other is not acknowledging this passive power trip, would you say it may be time to move on?

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