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Cultural Differences in the Function and Meaning of Apologies

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image of International Negotiation

One of the most effective means for re-establishing trust in negotiations and disputes is by making an apology. However, the function and meaning of an apology (and thus its effectiveness for negotiators) may differ across cultures. We hypothesized that people from an individual-agency culture (such as the United States) understand apologies as analytic mechanisms for assigning blame and re-establishing personal credibility. In contrast, apologies in collective-agency cultures (such as Japan) are understood to be general expressions of remorse rather than a means to assign culpability. A survey of Japanese and Americans found that, compared to Americans, Japanese apologized more often and were more likely to apologize for actions in which they were not involved; on the other hand, Americans were more likely than Japanese to equate apologizing with personal blame. A subsequent experimental study showed that these cultural differences in the function and meaning of apologies have implications for trust repair in disputes: apologies for integrity violations led to greater trust repair for Japanese than for Americans, but apologies for competence violations were somewhat more effective for Americans than Japanese. Implications for theory and practice are discussed.

Affiliations: 1: INSEAD Boulevard de Constance, 77305 Fontainebleau France, Email:; 2: University of Southern California, Department of Management and Organization Hoffman Hall 621, Los Angeles, CA 90089-1421 USA, Email:; 3: Nagoya City University, Graduate School of Economics 1 Yamanohata, Mizuhocho, Mizuhoku, Nagoya 467-8501 Japan, Email:; 4: Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management 2001 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208 USA, Email:


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