I am sorry – three little words that can mean so much or nothing at all. How apologies are given and perceived differ across the world, and learning how to properly apologize according to different cultural customs can greatly impact your business for better or worse.
Industry professionals from around the world said those who work internationally need to understand the importance of proper apologies and how to best deliver them. Yaniv Masjedi, chief marketing officer at Nextiva, said it is critical for businesses to be culturally sensitive.
"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.
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.
United States of America
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, American's 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.
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.com, 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.)," said Rennella. "It is seen as impersonal, [with a] lack of affection and reciprocity, [and] should be avoided."
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 him or her 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 that is notorious for apologizing, the term "I'm sorry" does not assume guilt – so much so that the country created an 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 you are sincere in acknowledging your wrongdoing and 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. An example of when this phrase may be used if you show up late or interrupt somebody.
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 terminology 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," said Vignoles. "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. When you admit your ignorance, be sure to ask for advice on how to correct the situation.
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 to.
"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'," said Vignoles.
Vignoles added that Russians can be upset if you don't put your phone on silent in a meeting. If you find your phone ringing or audibly vibrating, 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," said Vignoles.
United Kingdom (UK)
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 that you are about to give a reprimand to.
"The simple rule to remember is that the British take apologizing very seriously," said Vignoles. "If in doubt, always apologize! If you don't, you will immediately be 'tutted,' which is a separate issue altogether."
After you apologize
Having the acumen to read social cues is not only important before an apology but afterwards as well. Paying attention to body language and cultural differences allows you to see whether the other party has been positively or negatively impacted by your apology. This behavior and 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 isn't without 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.