Older Roman Catholics may recognize the Latin words mea culpa. They mean “(through) my fault” and were spoken prior to divulging your sins to a priest and repenting. (These days, you can prepare for Confession by tracking your transgressions with a Mea Culpa app!)
Since most religions incorporate atonement into their moral guidelines, why is it still so hard for us to admit mistakes and say we’re sorry in the US? Here are three possible reasons:
1) We are a highly litigious society, and we fear lawsuits.
2) We worry about the effect an apology may have on our businesses or careers.
3) We fear it will make us look frail, stupid, or…human.
But to err is human and as a culture, we are relatively comfortable with risk, so of course we’re going to experience failures. Therefore, it’s a given that we should take the heat when blunders occur and say we’re sorry. However, even when we do try to apologize, sometimes we get it wrong.
Nataly Kelly, coauthor of Found in Translation, relates the following personal account of an apology gone awry:
“I once interpreted for an American businessman who spilled a bit of his drink on his Latin American colleague’s suit. He apologized profusely at first, and I could tell that the Latin American gentleman did not really mind. However, through the rest of the dinner meeting, the US executive continued raising the issue and making jokes about it, saying things like, ‘Oh, here comes the appetizer, let’s see if I can get some grease spots on your tie.’ In general, it’s a bad idea to use humor to apologize, because it can end up confusing the issue. In this case, I think it made the other party question whether or not the original apology was sincere.”
As Kelly points out, an expression of regret should carry some gravitas with it. Adding humor to an already uncomfortable situation – particularly across cultures – is very confusing and can make the “penitent” appear disingenuous.
One environment where apologies have significant value is Japan. Individuals constantly apologize to each other throughout Japanese society – for intrusions on the phone, face-to-face interruptions during the day, etc. But when corporations commit egregious errors, their leaders must show serious remorse in a formal manner, or they will never regain the public’s trust and do business there again.
Multiple CEOs and presidents have been broadcast live on Japanese television delivering their apologies, bowing and humbly listening to angry clients – sometimes at the feet of the offended parties. See if you can match the company leaders who publicly apologized with their companies’ offense:
Not all business disasters are the fault of the company. The 1982 Chicago Tylenol poisonings which resulted in seven fatalities were a case in point. Despite the fact that the bottles were tampered with after reaching the shelves, Johnson & Johnson “assumed responsibility by ensuring public safety first.” Both the FBI and the FDA thought a product recall was an overreaction, but the company’s late chairman, James E. Burke, overruled them and pulled all Tylenol off the shelves at a cost of approximately $100 million.
Within three months, Tylenol returned in difficult-to-adulterate caplets in triple-sealed boxes. A year later, Tylenol had almost regained its old market share, and the company’s response became an object study in how to respond to a crisis.
Terri Morrison is a Speaker and Co-author of nine books, including Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: The Bestselling Guide to Doing Business in More Than Sixty Countries, and her new book, Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: Sales & Marketing. She is president of Getting Through Customs, developers of Kiss Bow or Shake Hands Digital - available through McGraw-Hill. TerriMorrison@kissboworshakehands Twitter @KissBowAuthor. Tel (610) 725-1040.