Kate Elwood looks at the differences in apologizing between Japanese and Americans in her colum for the Daily Yomiuri:
The title of a 1976 hit song by Elton John declares, “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” The tune came into my head recently as I was pondering the irritation of an American acquaintance I’ll call Agnes. A long-term resident of Japan, Agnes is very happy here. It is rare to hear her express annoyance at anything for which cultural differences might be the source. And yet a few weeks ago she was well and truly fed up.
Agnes had planned to take a summer vacation and cleared it four months in advance with her supervisor. Another colleague, a Japanese man I’ll call Mr. Kikuchi, had planned his own vacation similarly well ahead of time and also received approval. Their time away overlapped by a few days. During this period when both were unavailable, a small matter unexpectedly cropped up, which would normally be handled by one or both of them. Accordingly, another colleague handled it and the issue was resolved without much difficulty. Agnes and Mr. Kikuchi were notified about it in a matter-of-fact, rather than reproachful, manner.
Agnes’ exasperation stemmed from Mr. Kikuchi’s response to the situation. From his vacation destination, he wrote an e-mail of several paragraphs to several colleagues, CC’ing it to Agnes as well. It was an abject expression of remorse for his inability to deal with the matter due to his trip, and for therefore having to impose upon other colleagues. As Agnes read it, she felt that she must write a comparable apology.
But she couldn’t do it. She felt that she had nothing to apologize for, having done nothing remiss or irresponsible. And yet Agnes felt pressure from Mr. Kikuchi’s e-mail gnawing at her peace of mind so she finally composed an e-mail of her own expressing gratitude for the assistance of her colleagues. Then she tacked on a minimal apology. Begrudgingly.
As organizational specialist William Maddux and his fellow researchers have pointed out, there are cultural differences in the function and meaning of apologies in the United States and Japan.
Maddux and his colleagues asked female university students in the two countries to write down how many times they had apologized in the previous week. The average response for American respondents was 4.5 times, but for their Japanese counterparts it was 11.1, more than twice as frequently.
The researchers also asked the students to rate their own likelihood of apologizing or accepting responsibility in various situations. The results indicated that the Japanese respondents were more likely to apologize in situations in which they did not feel responsible than the Americans. Correspondingly, the Japanese were less likely to associate apologizing with the acceptance of responsibility than the American students.
Light apologies vs serious apologies
In another study, Teruyuki Kume and other communication researchers analyzed apologies in five TV dramas in Japan and the United States. They found that the apologies made in the Japanese dramas were most often made lightly for inconveniencing another person, without much emphasis on whether the speaker was personally responsible for any wrongdoing.
Only about 14 percent of the apologies stemmed from a sense of true damage inflicted. On the other hand, close to half of the American apologies clearly expressed shame or regret for misconduct or were driven by a more serious upset in the relationship.
The differences in responses to the apologies in the dramas of the two countries were even more interesting.
In the Japanese dramas, the most common response was to deny that any harm had been done. Almost half were of this type. Other ways of dealing with the apology were silence (23 percent) or making an apology in return (14 percent).
In the American dramas, on the other hand, almost half of those apologized to made no response. Another 29 percent lightly accepted the apology and 10 percent made an antagonistic response. Only 6 percent denied the need to apologize.
In “The Man Upstairs,” a short story by British humorist P.G. Wodehouse, the heroine apologizes to an ill-mannered artist whose work she had quite justifiably slighted, whereupon she must endure hearing him forgive her “with a repulsive magnanimity.”
Wodehouse takes the occasion to caution his readers: “It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them…As it was, she allowed herself to be forgiven, and retired with a dismal conviction that from now on he would be more insufferable than ever. Her surmise proved absolutely correct.”