Apologizing: Politeness Strategies

You’ve been accused of  offending someone. You have three choices:

  1. justify the act because you are willing to take responsibility because you feel the act is not bad;
  2. make excuses because the act is bad but you are not responsible;
  3. apologize because you are willing to take responsibility even though the act is bad

Apology Justification ExcuseThere are many possible motivations for an apology. It may be done out of pure empathy, as a way to deal with guilt and shame, to avoid abandonment, retaliation, or to mend one’s reputation. 

Offering an apology is often seen as a threatening act, a humiliating restriction of one’s freedom, or as a very painful experience. We might believe that the person who has been offended may subconsciously want to see us suffer as a part of their healing process. For that reason, I think that most of us tend to be evasive when it comes to the act of giving an apology. 

An apology is not an assault on your reputation or personal freedom. After all the offence has already damaged the offended parties opinion of you or may even place restrictions on your freedom of choice, and its effect will be even greater if no apology is given.

Therefore, let me urge you view an apology as a substantive way to restore your reputation.

Researchers agree that regardless of one’s culture, the goal of an apology is to restore and maintain relationships by expressing responsibility. Researchers in a field called cross-cultural pragmatics have found that in most English-speaking cultures, the emphasis is on expressing regret, which does not link the person directly with the offensive act. For Russian speakers and most other Slavic languages, an apology is a verbal expression of guilt.

I’d like to take a look at three politeness strategies that can go with an apology.

  1. offers of repair (I’ll remove the damage) – Offers of repair seek to restore harmony by going beyond a simple verbal expression;
  2. promises not to re-offend (I’ll take responsibility for future actions) – Promises not to re-offend show a desire to keep the relationship on a smooth path;
  3. expression of concern (I’m responsible for how you have been affected).

All three politeness strategies link the offender to the offensive act.