International Negotiation Skills: Before Apologizing, Consider the Culture

Frame and deliver apologies carefully in cross-cultural negotiations

By — on / International Negotiation

In 2004, after Japanese regulators shut down Citigroup’s private bank in the country for breaking numerous laws, then-CEO Charles O. Prince made headlines by traveling to Japan, bowing deeply before television cameras, and apologizing for his firm’s mistakes. As unusual as it seemed in American eyes, the public apology was widely seen in Japan as a necessary first step in restarting Citigroup’s operations there.

An apology can be an effective means of restoring trust in negotiations and disputes, past research has found. In new experiments, William W. Maddux of INSEAD and his colleagues identify cultural differences in the way Japanese and American participants respond to apologies.

The cultural differences start with expectations surrounding apologies. In the United States, apologies generally encompass an admission of personal responsibility and an expression of regret. In Japan, where organizations are generally viewed as more culpable than individuals for wrongdoing, an apology simply involves recognition of a burden suffered by someone else, write Maddux and his team. These differences reflect the individualistic nature of American culture and the more collectivistic culture of Japan.

Along these lines, in one experiment, the research team found that American participants viewed apologies as a means of assigning blame and rebuilding personal credibility. By contrast, Japanese participants viewed an apology as a general expression of remorse rather than as a means of assigning blame.

In a second experiment, as compared with Americans, Japanese participants were more accepting of an apology from a job applicant who had committed accounting malfeasance in a past position. The results suggest that apologies for this type of “integrity violation” would be more effective in Japan than in the United States because the Japanese generally view such transgressions as more correctable than Americans do.

The study results confirm the soundness of Prince’s decision to apologize publicly to the Japanese for his firm’s wrongdoing. They also echo more recent anecdotal evidence of cultural differences in the use of apologies. After the public scandal regarding potential accelerator problems in Toyota vehicles, CEO Akio Toyoda made several explicit public apologies for his company’s actions. Toyota even took out full-page ads in U.S. newspapers that read, “We apologize from the bottom of our hearts for the great inconvenience and worries that we have caused you all.” Contrast this behavior with the 2009–2010 congressional testimony of American executives from AIG and other companies that had awarded large profits and bonuses on the heels of government bailouts. The executives’ testimony included “at best, lukewarm remorse and few explicit apologies,” say Maddux and colleagues.

In sum, in a collectivist culture like Japan’s, an apology can be an effective means of alleviating conflict regardless of whether you are to blame. By contrast, when you apologize in an individualistic culture like that of the United States, you must balance the legal and reputational risks. Thus, be sure to frame and deliver apologies carefully in cross-cultural negotiations.

Resource: “Cultural Differences in the Function and Meaning of Apologies,” by William W. Maddux, Peter H. Kim, Tetsushi Okumura, and Jeanne M. Brett. International Negotiation, 2011.

Adapted from “Before Apologizing, Consider the Culture,” first published in the June 2012 issue of Negotiation.

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