Apology is an action in which one admits the wrongful nature of an act and one’s responsibility for it in dealing with some type of problematic situation; for instance violations of social expectations, offenses, rule-breaking behaviors, social predicaments, and embarrassment. The concept can be traced back to apologia, the speech of self-defense identified in Greek rhetoric. The first scholar to give much attention to this action in face-to-face settings was Erving Goffman, who treated it as part of a remedial interchange. The remedial interchange is a sequence of exchanges in which one tries to change the meaning of an action that is potentially offensive to one that is acceptable through the uses of such acts as excuses, justifications, and apologies.
Unlike an excuse, in which one admits the wrongfulness of an act but denies one’s full responsibility, or a justification, in which one admits the responsibility but denies that the act itself was wrong, an apology admits both to the wrongfulness and to one’s responsibility for the act, often with an expression of remorse. Goffman treated a remedial interchange as a unit basically consisting of four moves, namely remedy (i.e., accounts, apologies, or requests), relief, appreciation, and minimization, whereas other researchers have used slightly larger units, such as an accounting sequence and a remedial episode, for observing actions including apologies.
The concept of apology is important because it helps us understand the way in which society is maintained through individuals’ everyday conduct. In apologizing, one demonstrates that one is guilty of an offense and, at the same time, shows one’s willingness to adhere to the rule that one has violated (Goffman 1971). In other words, by apologizing the offender claims that his or her act was an exception to the rule, and, as a result, the original rule is sustained. The concept is also important in understanding the way in which individuals restore their preferred images of self, or “face.” In interactions, one’s face is sometimes supported by the other and thus maintained, but at other times, it can be threatened. The latter type of situation occasions an apology. The desire to restore one’s own or the other’s face, as well as the relationship with the other, is a motivating factor for an individual to offer an apology.
The role of apologies has been examined in a wide variety of contexts including criminal and civil justice systems and mediation, medical malpractice, national and international political incidents and historic events, corporate image restoration, marital and family relationships, psychotherapy, literary texts, and public speech. Three areas of research, in particular, have investigated various dimensions of apologies in face-to-face interaction. First, social psychological research has examined the relationship between apology and other concepts (e.g., guilt, embarrassment, aggression, forgiveness, healing processes, and repairing trust) and the relationships among variables (e.g., age, sex, culture; offender’s reputation, degree of remorse, responsibility, and intentionality; nature of relationships; severity of the offense; extent of damage; absence or presence of apology; content of the apology; effectiveness of apology versus other actions; timing of the apology; restitution and punishment; and consequences).
Second, researchers studying accounts have treated apology as a concession, one type of accounting strategy in the category that includes excuses, justifications, and refusals. Third, research in pragmatics and applied linguistics has typically treated apology as a speech act and a politeness strategy. It has attempted to identify strategies of apologizing (e.g., an acknowledgment of responsibility, an account) and their linguistic forms (e.g., “I’m sorry,” “It won’t happen again”). Note that most pragmatics research has considered accounts to be an apology strategy, whereas accounting research has treated apologies as a type of accounts. Pragmatics research has also investigated situations that require apologies, factors that influence the choice of strategies, cross-cultural differences in the uses of apology, and the similarities between apologies and thanks. Whereas some researchers begin with functions (e.g., admitting responsibility) and then collect their linguistic forms, others begin with forms and identify their functions.
Recent research has considered how apology is conceptualized and practiced in other speech communities and what happens when two interactants have two different meanings for apology. Researchers have increasingly collected natural data using ethnographic methods as opposed to questionnaires, role-play, laboratory experiments, and analyses of textbooks. Conversation analysis has begun to explore sequential positions of apology and its preference organizations by treating it as the first or second pair part in adjacency pairs. The source of both strengths and weaknesses in apology research might be that it has been conducted in many disciplines and languages and that these researchers have tended to operate within their own disciplinary and geographic boundaries.
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- Morris, G. H. (1985). The remedial episode as a negotiation of rules. In R. L. Street, Jr., & J. N. Cappella (eds.), Sequence and pattern in communicative behavior. London: Arnold, pp. 70 – 84.
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- Tavuchis, N. (1991). Mea culpa: A sociology of apology and reconciliation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.