Don’t stuff your sorries in a sack

New research suggests “superfluous apologies,” such as expressing sorrow for bad weather, builds trust

Topics: Pacific Standard, Sorry, apologies, Weather, Harvard,

Don't stuff your sorries in a sack
This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

Pacific Standard Have you been personally inconvenienced by the government shutdown? I’m so sorry.

On its face, that’s a strange statement to make. I have nothing to do with the government shutdown, so I have nothing to apologize for. And yet we make such apologies all the time. Why?

Newly published research suggests that they perform the important function of building trust. In our minds, anyone who takes note of our misfortune, and expresses dismay over it, is impressively empathetic and thus worthy of our confidence.

“Even in the absence of culpability, individuals can increase trust and liking by saying ‘I’m sorry’—even when they are merely ‘sorry’ about the rain,” writes a research team led by Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School. The team’s study is published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Brooks and her colleagues describe four experiments that suggest the value of “superfluous apologies,” which they describe as “expressions of regret for an undesirable circumstance that is clearly outside of one’s control.” Arguably the most compelling of the four is one that took place neither online nor in a lab room, but in a real-world setting.

Over the course of two rainy days in November 2010, a man (who did not know the purpose of the experiment) approached 65 strangers at a large train station in the Northeastern United States and asked to borrow their phone. The researchers, reasonably enough, consider agreeing to such a request a sign of trust.

Half the time, he came up to the person and said: “I’m so sorry about the rain! Can I borrow your cell phone?” The other half, he skipped the apology and went directly to the request.



Among those who were greeted with a superfluous apology, 47 percent handed it over. Among those who weren’t, only nine percent agreed to the phone loan.

“By issuing a superfluous apology,” the researchers write, “the apologizer communicates that he has taken the victim’s perspective, acknowledge adversity, and expresses regret.” This simple action, they add, “demonstrates empathetic concern for the victim, and increases the victim’s trust in the apologizer.”

So the next time you need to establish trust with someone, try apologizing for something outside of your control. If it doesn’t work—well, I’m sorry.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Rose Jay via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    Labrador Retriever

    These guys are happy because their little brains literally can't grasp the concept of global warming.

    Hysteria via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    German Shepherd

    This momma is happy to bring her little guy into the world, because she doesn't know that one day they'll both be dead.

    Christian Mueller via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    Golden Retriever

    I bet these guys wouldn't be having so much fun if they knew the sun was going to explode one day.

    WilleeCole Photography via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    Bulldog

    This dude thinks he's tough, but only because nobody ever told him about ISIS.

    Soloviova Liudmyla via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    Beagle

    This little lady is dreaming about her next meal-- not Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

    Labrador Photo Video via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    Yorkshire Terrier

    This trusting yorkie has never even heard the name "Bernie Madoff."

    Pavla via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    Poodle

    She is smiling so widely because she is too stupid to understand what the Holocaust was.

    Aneta Pics via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    Boxer

    Sure, frolic now, man. One day you're going to be euthanized and so is everyone you love.

    Dezi via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    French Bulldog

    He's on a casual afternoon stroll because he is unfamiliar with the concept of eternity.

    Jagodka via Shutterstock

    Most popular dog breeds in America

    Rottweiler

    Wouldn't it be nice if we could all be this care-free? But we can't because we are basically all indirectly responsible for slavery.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...