Thursday, August 25, 2016

I am Sorry, but Apologizing in English is Really Complicated

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

Remember when you were a kid and after a fight with your brothers or sisters, your parents would make you apologize? Even though my sister and I are great friends now, when we were younger, we’d get into some terrible battles. I was older and wilier, so it was often my unkindness that was to blame. But, when we had to make up at my mother’s insistence, the “I’m sorry” I muttered could never have been mistaken for a genuine expression of contrition.

Finding the Words to Say Sorry

But, why was that? Isn’t it enough just to say the words, “I’m sorry” when we’ve done something harmful to another person? Well, it’s not quite that simple.

Let’s assume that we are talking about genuine apologies here, not my coerced childhood apologies to my sister. According to Trosborg (1987), the language we use for an apology depends on the severity of the complaint (e.g. bumping into a stranger on the street versus running over a neighbor’s pet) and the relationship between the apologizer and the apologizee (e.g. a woman in a yoga class versus a supervisor at work).

However, despite the seemingly endless variety of scenarios requiring an apology that I encounter as I bumble through my daily life (for the record, I have yet to run over a neighbor’s pet), the good news is that when I want to explicitly apologize, a “small number of verbs apply and the expression [of apology] is a routine formula generally accepted” (Trosborg, 1987, p. 151). In other words, I usually don’t have to get creative with my apology.

Apparently, proficient English speakers make use of 5 strategies (Olshtain, 1989):

1. explicitly apologize – “I’m sorry.”
2. take responsibility – “It’s my fault.”
3. explain – “I didn’t see him there.”
4. offer repair – “I’ll pay for the broken window.”
5. promise of forbearance – “It won’t happen again.”

Apologies around the World

This is great news for our students who wish to learn how to appropriately apologize in English. As previously discussed in postings such as Offers they CAN Refuse, The Art of Yes, But … and Can I Please Borrow your Car?, students who don’t know about the cultural expectations associated with a particular speech act run the risk of causing offense in a native English speaking context. “[C]ultural differences can affect the assessment of the severity of an offence, the offender’s perceived obligation to apologize, and the language used to perform the apology.” (Lieske, 2011, p. 41)

Researchers, such as Uso-Juan & Martinez-Flor (2015) have determined that English learners’ apologies tend to differ from native English speakers’ apologies in that they do not make wide use of the choices English speaker have at their disposal when apologizing. In their study of EFL tourism students, Uso-Juan & Martinez-Flor found that their students were limited to expressions of apology and, much less frequently, explanations and promises of forbearance. Interestingly, their students did not take responsibility or offer a repair at all.

What this Means for Students

So, why is this research interesting for ESL and EFL teachers? Well, as we know from previous posts, if students follow the rules of their culture when they attempt speech acts such as apologizing in English, they may send an unintended message of indifference. For instance, In Suszczynska’s (1999) study of strategies used by people when they bumped into an elderly person on the street, she found that Hungarian speakers preferred the phrase “Don’t be angry” and Polish speakers often offered to pick up any dropped packages and drive the person home. Both of these responses would seem strange, even suspicious, to a native English speaker, and teachers might want to help students avoid this kind of negative transfer, when students apply the rules for politeness from their L1 to situations in the L2 with undesirable consequences.

Teaching Apologizing

As was stated in previous posts on pragmatics, teachers of students who want to communicate in a native English speaking context need to explicitly teach apologizing strategies in our lessons. Awareness-raising activities in which students watch videos or read dialogues containing apologies can be a great way to start. Classroom activities and discussions that draw students’ attention to the five strategies for apologizing, as well as exposure to the formulaic language that is common to the speech act, are also beneficial. Finally, first writing and then spontaneously delivering apologies gives students the practice they need to make saying “sorry” appropriately the go-to response when harm has been caused.

Leiske, C. (2011). Oh, I’m so sorry! Are you all right? Teaching apologies. In N.R. Houck & Tatsuki, D.H. (eds.) Pragmatics: Teaching Natural Conversation, Alexandria, VA: TESOL Press, 41-60.
Olshtain, E. (1989). Apologies across languages. In S. Blum-Kulka, J. House & G Kasper (Eds.), Cross-cultural Pragmatics: Requests and Apologies. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 155-173.
Suszczynska, M. (1999). Apologizing in English, Polish and Hungarian: Different languages, different strategies. Journal of Pragmatics, 31, 1053-1065.
Trosborg, A. (1987). Apology strategies in natives / non-natives. Journal of Pragmatics, 11(2), 147-167.
Uso-Juan, E. & Martinez-Flor, A. (2015). Assessing EFL learners’ performance of the conventional expressions of complaining and apologizing. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 173, 53-60.


Comment from Keith
August 26, 2016 at 5:13 pm

Excellent article. Thank you!

Comment from Sue Alexander
August 27, 2016 at 12:56 am

Very helpful!

Comment from Tamara Jones
August 29, 2016 at 11:18 am

It’s so nice to hear from interested readers! Thanks for the feedback.

Pingback from Teacher Talk » A Good Compliment
September 27, 2016 at 2:10 pm

[…] frustrations” (Beal, 1992, pages 49-50). Just as I point out in other posts about Pragmatics (I am Sorry, but Apologizing in English is Really Difficult, Offers they CAN Refuse, The Art of Yes, But … and Can I Please Borrow your Car?), proficient […]

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