Cultural Conundrums: Sorry to have made you apologize
May 03, 2012
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, comedians Mike Myers and Dana Carvey often appeared in the guise of two wacky yet lovable metal-loving loafers named Wayne and Garth. At the start of each "Wayne's World" sketch on NBC's Saturday Night Live, Garth greeted Wayne saying, "Party on, Wayne!" and Wayne replied, "Party on, Garth!" "Party on" soon became a popular catchphrase for glib salutations. I hadn't thought of Wayne's World or the revelry-advocating refrain for a long time, but recently a spontaneous adaptation of it--"Sorry on!"--popped into my head when thinking about a recent experience of someone I'll call Carey.
Carey had received an e-mail from a Japanese coworker, whom I'll call Mr. Setoguchi, asking for some information. Carey realized that another colleague had already sent what had been requested to both her and Mr. Setoguchi some months earlier. She did a quick search of her in-box and forwarded the pertinent e-mail to Mr. Setoguchi, with a quick note along the lines of, "Here is the information you requested." Happy to have been able to be so promptly helpful, Carey did not give the matter another thought. Until a few hours later, anyway. That's when Carey received a reply from Mr. Setoguchi and reconsidered her actions.
The e-mail's subject heading was owabi (apology). In the message Mr. Setoguchi apologized to Carey for asking for information that had already been sent, and further promised to be more careful in the future so the same thing would not happen again. The e-mail ended with another quick apology. Mr. Setoguchi seemed sincerely mortified, which made Carey feel bad. She hadn't meant to accentuate his lack of attention, simply to respond to him swiftly. She had expected a less profuse response from Mr. Setoguchi, something more along the lines of, "Thanks for forwarding the e-mail which I had overlooked." Carey felt like writing back to apologize for embarrassing him. But apologizing for making someone apologize seemed likely to only prolong the uncomfortable situation, so she let it go.
....Public policy researcher Yoshiko Takahashi has investigated the importance of apologies in restorative justice. She asked 117 American and 198 Japanese students to imagine that a 17-year-old recidivist had stolen 500 dollars from their home. How important would an apology from the perpetrator be for them? Sixty-nine percent of the Americans agreed or strongly agreed that an apology would be important. On the other hand, 95 percent of the Japanese respondents felt this way.
Moreover, 49 percent of the Japanese students considered an apology a "very important" part of the resolution process compared to 18 percent of the Americans. Other response options bore out the notion that apologies were much more vital for the Japanese respondents. Fifty-six percent of the American students said an apology would be "nice, but would not change their feelings," compared to 37 percent of the Japanese. Sixteen percent of the American students said an apology was "not necessary" as opposed to 3 percent of their Japanese counterparts.
Apologies cannot rectify all damages, but they undoubtedly serve an important function, perhaps more so in Japan than in the United States. When in doubt, sorry on!