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Saying ‘sorry’ – and showing that you mean it

As part of our continuing interest in pragmatics, we return to the subject of apologizing, which has been discussed before by Stan and by Michael. Our guest bloggers this week are Simon Williams and Jules Winchester of the University of Sussex.

There’s quite a vogue nowadays for those in power to make apologies for wrongdoing.  Witness Prime Minister David Cameron’s saying sorry to local councillors who lost their seats in the UK’s local government elections earlier this year, or his opposite number, Labour Party leader Ed Milliband, apologizing for the previous government’s failure to regulate the banks.  Global companies too have been saying sorry for getting things wrong. But how do they persuade people they mean it? And are we more inclined to accept apologies from those whom we perceive as moral, upright and trustworthy, companies included? The expression of contrition might be one of the things companies do with words to make their apologies persuasive. Following the etymological trail in the OED reveals that the word contrition owes its meaning to a combination of understanding of and sorrow for the misdeed, and reparation or follow-up action to put things right; plain remorse doesn’t have this behavioural dimension and is more purely emotive. People might therefore be more likely to accept a company’s apology if it appears contrite, rather than just remorseful.

At the recent Language in the Real World conference at the University of Portsmouth, we gave a presentation in which we looked for evidence of contrition in the annual reports of two global companies which had both been involved in unfortunate incidents: BP, following the Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010; and Toyota, after its recall of 9 million vehicles for faulty accelerator cables in late 2009 and early 2010. Within the annual reports of these two companies, we chose the CEO’s ‘Letter to Shareholders’ as the most likely place to find contrition. In both cases, narrative was used as a vehicle for apology. In one way, this isn’t surprising because the content of all company reports (apart from the accounts) is known as a narrative; but within this, both our sample texts made use of ‘story’ to convey understanding, sorrow, and moral response in the form of action. BP’s account was the more detailed of the two – at eight times the length of Toyota’s. And only in BP’s report was there any evidence of reflection, a key test of whether the company shows awareness of the harm that has been done.  Again, it’s important to examine reflection more closely.

Is it just a formal acknowledgement of what went wrong, or does it show empathy for the victims? Is there both understanding and emotion present as empathy, or only emotion? Empathy requires both cognitive awareness and emotion. Cognition alone is the mindset of the psychopath. For example, the Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik understands that he killed 77 people, but he shows no emotion for them. In contrast, people with autism may recognize and share emotion, but without understanding it. In combination, understanding and emotion suggest some level of social interaction, a key indicator – along with abstract reasoning – of the ‘conventional’ moral stage in Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. In Kohlberg’s theory, people develop the ability to make increasingly principled moral judgements as a result of social interaction. The development occurs in stages, and Kohlberg claims that it is universal and occurs across cultures, a claim largely supported in a survey of related research by Gibbs et al. (2007*).

In his address, the Toyota CEO does not refer directly to the product recalls: the nearest he gets is ‘our sense of crisis’, so reflection is absent. Although in these terms BP’s Letter to Shareholders expresses contrition more directly, Toyota’s does something else. By referring to the voluntary work done by company employees in response to the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, the CEO, Mr Cho, shows Toyota to be a moral actor: their reparative activity was just not associated with the company’s mistakes. Mr Cho does make a direct apology in the previous year’s report. The trouble is, his apology is not to the company’s customers, for manufacturing defective products, but to its shareholders, for making a loss: ‘I apologize sincerely for any concern this [failure to make a full earnings recovery] may have caused our shareholders, investors, customers, suppliers, communities and other stakeholders.’ There’s another important factor. Toyota is one of the few global companies to have a founding family member on its board of directors. Mr Toyoda (sic), grandson of the founder, is currently President of the company, and it is he who apologized to the US Congress for the safety lapses in February 2010. On balance, in their post-crisis annual reports both Toyota and BP show themselves to be contrite, but the way they do this follows different conventions. The extent to which these conventions are culturally universal or culture-specific, and the universality of the concept of contrition itself, need further investigation, and may indicate the degree to which a company represents itself as truly global.

*Reference Gibbs, J. C., Basinger, K. S., Grime, R. L. 2007.  Moral judgment development across cultures: Revisiting Kohlberg’s universality claims. Developmental Review, 27(4): 443-500.

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Simon Williams and Jules Winchester


  • Oh interesting post!

    On the BP aploogy being eight times as long, that bears out other research suggesting that and aplogy with lots of explanation and detail might make you sound shifty in Japanese.

    Now, as the readers of the reports would be shareholders, isn’t Mr Cho being more logical than BP when he apologises for the loss? What does it say about perceieved audience?

    Readers who enjoyed this might also enjoy this article on Japanese aplogies from the asian-tefl journal: http://www.asian-efl-journal.com/March06_dl.pdf

  • Thanks for the insight into the likely effect of a long apology on a Japanese audience. Our Japanese students were at first reluctant to comment on any such conventions, a reticence interesting in itself. Eventually, one of them offered an insight from Samurai tradition: seppuko, killing oneself by disembowelment, was the code of honour for a warrior accepting responsibility for some misdeed. A mere apology, especially a long-winded one, would have been seen as somehow inadequate and less sincere. Our student also made the analogy that, like Julius Caesar’s ‘veni, vidi, vici’, the samurai lived by big deeds and few words. Perhaps an interesting take by comparison is the extent to which a CEO acknowledges responsibility for company faults and how they express it in the company report. Increasingly, it seems that such apologies are given orally at a press conference, particularly in the case of Japan, historically a country whose ‘apologies have been spoken rather than written in official statements’ and which continues to face calls for apologies in writing (Jeffrey 2011: 612). But perhaps a spoken apology is more of a public humiliation for the CEO?
    Reference Jefferey, R. 2011. When is an apology not an apology? Contrition chic and Japan’s (un)apologetic politics. Australian Journal of International Affairs 65(5): 607-617

  • Interesting article on this very theme in today’s Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/24/andrew-mitchell-mel-gibson-apology-bad
    (For those who have better things to do than follow the minutiae of British politics, the government’s chief whip was very rude indeed to a police officer guarding the entrance to Downing Street; quite how rude, and what exact form his rudeness took is still a matter for animated discussion, as this article shows)

  • Let me make some comments about Japanese “apology” culture from Japanese viewpoint.

    We Japanese have a set phrase “Fugen Jikkou” which means “Do without saying”, in other words “Show your sincerity by attitude”. We consider an excuse to be indecent. Instead, we respect one’s action for compensation or improvement. I suppose this idea affected Samurai tradition “Seppuku” (as previous post referring the comment by other Japanese student), which happened in case the problem was too much to be taken by individuals.

    However, this idea is changing especially in business fields where it is globalized and western ideas are regarded as more appropriate to be applied. Accountability is certainly necessary. In fact, “Fugen Jikkou” is nowadays almost disappearing and on the contrary people say “Yuugen Jikkou”, which means “Declare what you will do and take actions”. We respect the words to show the sincerity more than ever.

    In my opinion, Toyota should have made appropriate statements (incl. detailed reflection) to mass media at earlier stage. The idea of apology which conveys the meaning seems similar between western countries and Japan at least in terms of mass communication.

  • Thanks for these interesting observations, Yuki-san – a fascinating example of the interaction between globalization on national cultures.

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