- Apology customs differ across countries. For example, Argentinians frown upon written apologies, while bowing is key to Japanese and Korean cultures.
- You should apologize for modest to large mistakes for which you’re clearly to blame. For little things, the culture’s equivalent of “I’m sorry” will often do.
- You shouldn’t apologize too often or for someone else’s mistakes.
- This article is for business leaders and professionals learning how to communicate in international business settings.
Regardless of which country you work in, there are some common elements of a poor apology that can be agreed upon. Improper apology etiquette consists of forcing an apology, including the word “but” after your apology, justifying your actions and failing to make corrective behavior afterward.
In any culture, sincerity is an essential part of a proper apology, but how the apology is delivered is also crucial. For example, some cultures place importance on intricate, multifaceted apologies, whereas other cultures prefer to avoid drawing additional unwanted attention to the problem. Those who work internationally need to understand the importance of proper apologies and how to best deliver them.
How to apologize in 13 different countries
Studies have found that, across countries, company culture matters more than salary. In other words, no matter where your business connections are based or how much money crosses hands, you need to know how to apologize properly to maintain a positive culture. Here’s how to do so in 13 different countries.
Yaniv Masjedi, chief marketing officer at Nextiva, said cultural sensitivity is critical for businesses.
“Whether your internal team spans multiple continents, [or you] want to ensure that your team treats your international customer base properly, it’s important to be aware of how to properly relate [to one another] within each culture,” Masjedi told Business News Daily. [Related: How to Lead a Multicultural or International Team]
In the U.S., apologies often come by way of assuming guilt. If you have done something wrong, you should apologize by expressing remorse and admitting responsibility. Although apologies are best delivered in person, Americans’ widespread use of technology is making digital apologies more commonplace.
The first step of acknowledging your mistake and expressing remorse often requires a simple “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” These words need to be authentic and are best received when they are followed by listing the specific action you are sorry for. In the second step of admitting responsibility, empathize with how the other person felt about your actions. By admitting fault, you can restore trust and goodwill from the person you hurt. After apologizing, it is important you correct the behavior to avoid making the same mistake. Don’t offer excuses, and don’t expect instant forgiveness.
Tip: If you’re delivering a workplace apology to a fully remote team, it’s appropriate to do it in a video conference. If you haven’t implemented video conferencing for your team yet, start with our picks for the best video conference service.
In Argentina, the best way to apologize in business is by inviting the other person to a one-on-one work lunch. Cristian Rennella, CEO and co-founder of elMejorTrato, said this in-person encounter is the best way to show your remorse and open up a relaxed dialogue to resolve the inconvenience.
“The worst way to do it is in writing (chat, email, letter, etc.),” he said. “It is seen as impersonal, [with a] lack of affection and reciprocity, [and] should be avoided.”
Did you know? In Argentina, written apologies tend to worsen existing problems.
In Brazil, the best way to apologize is by giving a small gift accompanied by a note of apology. Rennella said this gift must be related to the tastes and preferences of the other person. This shows you were thinking about them and that you care.
“The worst way is to do it is publicly with the rest of the team present or in a meeting,” Rennella said. “Always seek to avoid these situations when there are other people around.”
In Canada, a country notorious for over-apologizing, the term “I’m sorry” does not assume guilt, so much so that the country created the Apology Act to protect individuals from legal suit. The phrase is commonly used when minor transgressions occur, and it is typically the individual not at fault who apologizes. This is done as a way to imply that they don’t take offense to the slight that occurred.
To deliver a proper apology in Canada, it is important to be sincere in acknowledging your wrongdoing and to ask for forgiveness. Be prepared to apologize multiple times and explain how you will change your behavior. Don’t view an apology as a win-or-lose situation; it simply means that the relationship is worth more than your ego.
Depending on the type of apology you want to convey, there are multiple ways to say sorry in China. The phrase “yi han” is used to express regret or pity. An example is if you have to turn down an invitation or deliver bad news.
“Bu hao yi si” is used to apologize for an embarrassing situation or something that isn’t your fault. This phrase may be used if you show up late or interrupt someone.
Finally, “dui bu qi” or “bao qian” are used when you want to accept blame. This apology can be used for both big and small mistakes. It is important to know the distinction between the different terms and when to use each.
If you do not speak French, you will often be expected to first apologize for your lack of fluency before engaging in further conversation. This can be done with a simple “excusez moi,” “pardonnez moi” or “desole.”
Sophie Vignoles, team lead for French and Scandinavian languages at Babbel, said an apology is best conveyed with little formality. Be straight and to the point, without delving too much into detailed excuses.
“One-word apologies are sufficient,” Vignoles added. “Saying sorry for something that doesn’t really require an apology, like interrupting someone, will signal a lack of sincerity.”
For more serious apologies, Masjedi suggests providing a peace offering, such as a bottle of wine or a decent cheese. If the recipient invites you to enjoy these items with them, you should always accept, as this is your opportunity to smooth things over.
Apologizing is seen as a virtue in Japan and is often coupled with a bow. The more sorry you feel, the deeper you bow. When apologizing to a senior colleague or new acquaintance, you can say “moushiwake arimasen,” or “sumimasen.” The latter is more common and can also be used to show gratitude.
If you are apologizing to a close friend or family member, you can use the phrase “gomennasai,” commonly shortened to “gomen ne” or “gomen.” However, this is a casual phrase and can come across as childish, so it should never be used in a professional setting.
In Mexico, pairing the phrase “lo siento,” “disculpame,” or “perdon” with a courteous “senor” or “senora,” can go a long way. While there are many people proud of their pre-Columbian roots, there are an equal number who believe Mexico to be an established world player on its own. Because of this, Masjedi said it is important to avoid insulting Mexican indigenous customs or Spanish heritage when you apologize.
If you accidentally transgress on this front, acknowledge your ignorance of Mexican culture and history, then ask for advice on how to correct the situation.
Did you know? Certain international business customs and marketing mistakes could seriously affect your business deals, sales, or brand image. You should never attempt cross-cultural business communication without researching the relevant customs and etiquette first.
In Russia, there are several ways to apologize, and it is important to know which apology is most appropriate in the given context. Vignoles said the correct apology to use in a working environment depends on whom you are apologizing.
“If it is a senior colleague or a new business acquaintance, you would use ‘izvinite,’ which means ‘excuse me,’ while if [you were] speaking to a close colleague, you can get away with the less formal ‘prosti,’ which simply means ‘sorry’ or ‘forgive me.'”
Vignoles added that Russians may be upset if you don’t put your phone on silent in a meeting. If your phone does ring or audibly vibrate, apologize as quickly as possible.
In Sweden, punctuality is key, so arriving late to a business meeting is likely the most common situation in which you’ll find yourself needing to offer an apology. According to Vignoles, Swedes are very direct and appreciate honesty, so the worst thing you can do is lie or come up with a lengthy excuse.
“It is best to give a truthful reason for what caused your delay, apologize by saying ‘jag ber om ursakt,’ and then get straight to business,” Vignoles said.
In the U.K., you can never apologize enough. Vignoles said that members of a working environment may be expected to apologize for walking past a colleague in the office or making a point in a meeting. You may even be expected to apologize to somebody you are about to reprimand.
“The simple rule to remember is that the British take apologizing very seriously,” Vignoles said. “If in doubt, always apologize! If you don’t, you will immediately be ‘tutted,’ which is a separate issue altogether.”
The way you apologize in Germany depends on the severity of your offense. A simple, quick apology is typically fine for something that wouldn’t merit a big scene in the U.S. For bigger mistakes, you should state exactly what you did wrong and how you’ll avoid doing it again. Germans are known for their honesty and directness, so you should be forthcoming in your apology.
For formal or workplace apologies, you’ll need to use the word “Sie” for “you.” This word is the formal way to say “you” in German. The casual term, “du,” may come off as rude in an apology.
As in Japan, bowing is central to South Korean apologizing customs. A standard apology merits a bow at a 45-degree angle from the waist. For more severe infractions, you should bow down farther and stay down longer. That said, don’t imitate the kneeled-down showboating associated with Korean political scandals and TV shows. If you’re apologizing to younger colleagues, a simple head tilt and a solemn tone can replace a bow.
Apologies around the world
Here’s a summary of how to apologize in each of the above countries.
|Country||How to apologize|
|United States||Express remorse, state the erroneous action, empathize with the affected parties, and correct your behavior.|
|Argentina||Invite the person you’ve offended to a one-on-one work lunch where you show remorse through an open dialogue. Never apologize in writing.|
|Brazil||Give a small gift reflecting the person’s tastes alongside a note of apology. Never apologize with other team members present.|
|Canada||Sincerely acknowledge your wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness. You may need to apologize many times.|
|China||Use the relatively casual phrase “bu hao yi si” if you’ve accidentally been rude. Use “dui bu qi” or “bao qian” when you want to accept blame for a big or small mistake.|
|France||Apologize for a language barrier if present. Then, avoid excuses, get straight to the point, and give a peace offering of wine and cheese for serious infractions.|
|Japan||Bow when you apologize. A deeper bow signifies greater regret. Use only formal apology phrases in a professional setting.|
|Mexico||Apologize without insulting Mexican indigenous customs or Spanish heritage. If you do so accidentally, admit your ignorance and ask how to avoid your mistakes next time.|
|Russia||Use the phrase “izvinite” for new business connections or supervisors, and “prosti” for close colleagues. Apologize quickly if your phone goes off in a meeting.|
|Sweden||Be honest, direct and brief.|
|United Kingdom||You can never apologize too much, even if you think you’re overdoing it.|
|Germany||Be honest and blunt. Use “Sie” instead of “du” for “you” in workplace settings.|
|South Korea||A standard apology should include a bow. If you’re apologizing to younger colleagues, a head tilt and remorseful tone can replace a bow.|
When should you apologize in a business setting?
Though the answer to this question will vary by country, you should follow some consistent rules. For starters, there’s no need to give more than an “I’m sorry” for tiny little things – like delivering a useful resource slightly behind schedule. Reserve your apologies for bigger infractions, like missing hard deadlines or causing a client undue anxiety or anger.
You should also know when not to apologize. If a colleague’s constructive criticism has you feeling like you did something wrong, you can acknowledge it without an apology. Instead, say something like, “You’re right. I’ll do this next time. Thanks for your help.”
You never have to apologize for a mistake you didn’t make. If someone seeks an apology for something your teammate did, you can tell the apology-seeker that you’re checking in with the person in question. Don’t name the person – just show the apology-seeker that you’re looking into it. If that person never apologizes, that’s not on you and you don’t need to do it for them. But you may need to reflect on whether your company culture is indeed positive.
Key takeaway: Sometimes, a quick courtesy apology is all that’s necessary. You can trust your instincts about that to some extent. You never need to apologize for others’ actions.
What to do after the apology
Reading social cues is not only important before an apology, but afterward as well. Pay attention to body language and cultural differences to see whether the other party has been positively or negatively impacted by your apology. This attention to detail allows you to see if your apology was successful, or if you need to make another attempt at restoring a positive interaction.
International business has its difficulties, and learning the customs of another culture takes time. However, educating yourself – and your team – about the customs of other cultures goes a long way in sustaining successful business relationships abroad.
Max Freedman contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.