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A Lesson on Apology for Soldiers and Diplomats
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Article Index
A Lesson on Apology for Soldiers and Diplomats
Religious Context Driven Differences
Recommendations and Conclusion
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by Chaplain (Lieutenant Colonel) Bruce Sidebotham, U.S. Army Reserve, D.Min.

"No single function of communication involves more tragic cross-cultural misunderstanding, with more negative consequences for modern global stability, than inappropriate apologies."

The Challenge
In international diplomacy and in stability operations, American entities are apologizing by using the wrong forms. They assume that because the function of apology is universal the forms for it are universal as well, but they are mistaken. Using culturally inappropriate forms for apology undermines reconciliation, intensifies resentment, and prolongs hostility. No single function of communication involves more tragic cross-cultural misunderstanding, with more negative consequences for modern global stability, than inappropriate apologies.

He intended to tell the audience that he was greatly embarrassed for being late, but instead the foreign missionary actually told the congregation that his private parts were very large. This misunderstanding turned out to be humorous, but the misunderstandings resulting from wrongly communicated apologies are exponentially more significant and disruptive.

Different cultures have different meanings for the forms that accomplish universal functions. All societies have ways to apologize. Apologizing is a universal function. Words, grammar, and gestures, however, differ. They are forms. They have different meanings in different cultures. In the above example, the foreign guest chose the wrong word (form) to accomplish his intended apology (function), resulting in misunderstanding (missed meaning).

The "Languages" of Apology
Anthropologist Gary Chapman, whose writing and speaking popularized the five love-languages, has written with clinical psychologist Jennifer Thomas about five forms of apology. These forms, that he calls "languages of apology," are as follows:

1. Expressing Regret – Saying, "I am sorry."
2. Accepting Responsibility – Admitting, "I was wrong."
3. Making Restitution – Committing, "I will make it right."
4. Genuinely Repenting – Promising, "I will not do that again."
5. Requesting Forgiveness – Asking, "Will you forgive me?"1

Chapman and Thomas assert that people differ in their perceptions of apology. Different forms speak more deeply and more sincerely to different people.

You may appreciate hearing all languages, but if you don't hear your primary apology language, you will question the sincerity of the apologizer. On the other hand, if the apology is expressed in your primary language, then you will find it much easier to forgive the offender.2

What's true between individuals who vary in personalities is doubly true between cultures that vary in language, heritage, and majority religion. Different apology forms also speak more deeply and more sincerely to different cultures. When Arabs or Pushtuns hear apologies from Americans in American forms rather than in their own cultural form, then they question American sincerity. On the other hand, if Americans were to apologize to Arabs or Pushtuns in the primary Arab and Pushtun cultural forms, then reconciliation would be more attainable.

Differences Between the Forms and Social Contexts of Apology
What are some differences in the preferred forms for apology between cultures? The New Testament admonition to forgive as one has been forgiven reflects a universal pattern of accepting apologies based upon God's example. Different religions, however, have different beliefs about apologizing to God. These religious differences result in different forms for apologizing to each other. A society's historical, economic, and political context plays an important role as well.

Regarding the additional role for social context, American civilization, more than any other in history, takes significant control over its environment. American people exercise considerable personal control over their careers, marriages, and destiny. The American government has broad influence in the world. People with a high sense of power and control also have a high sense of responsibility. As a result, Americans tend to doubt the sincerity of apologies that avoid taking responsibility. They typically respect people who own up to their mistakes. They usually disrespect people who make excuses and blame others or circumstances. Americans especially despise the word, "but," in any sentence that includes the words, "I am sorry."

Most people in the world, however, have little power and minimal control over their environment. They are generally more vulnerable to nature and disasters than Americans. Arabs, for example, have little personal control over their careers, marriages, and destiny. The frequently uttered phrase "insyallah," meaning, "If God wills," illustrates the perception that ultimate responsibility rests with God rather than people.

Middle Eastern governments have little global influence and tend to see themselves as victims in a world order dominated by others. People with a low sense of power and control have a low sense of responsibility. Therefore, shouldering responsibility is rarely a necessary part of their apologies, and blaming shortcomings on others is actually part of the form for apologizing. People in these contexts desire dignity more than accountability.

American quickness to apologize to the world for everything from collateral damage in air strikes and Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses, to past injustices like the slave trade, flows from a sense of being responsible and in control. Confessing "sins" and accepting responsibility fills an American emotional need, but it does not lead to reconciliation with offended populations. Those offended parties are not looking for admissions of guilt or acceptance of responsibility as much as they are looking for restitution and the affirmation of dignity that comes when someone asks for forgiveness. Neither making restitution nor requesting forgiveness requires the admission of responsibility; however, these are the primary apology forms for much of the world.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 April 2013 15:36