Have you ever wondered why we start so many sentences with “I’m sorry.” We apologize for the weather; we say “sorry” when we want someone to step aside from blocking a walkway; we begin a request for a favor by saying, “I’m sorry, could you help me?” We even express our condolence for the loss of a family member with “I’m sorry for your loss.” We apologize for things we have no responsibility or blame for at all. When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense or does it?
To find out more about this phenomenon, researchers conducted a series of experiments using a variety of methodologies (Brooks, Dai & Schweitzer, 2014). This study defined an apology as “expressing regret or remorse for an undesirable event by individuals who were obviously not culpable for those events” (Brooks et al., 2014, p. 473). One of the scenarios used in the study instructed participates to ask random people waiting at a train station if they could use their phone.
Forty-seven percent of people complied with the request by turning over their cell phones when the request started with “I’m sorry”; compared to only 9% when the request did not include this phrase. As the researchers suspected, they found that an expression of an apology is a means for us to establish a level of trust. The researcher hypothesized that this simple phrase demonstrates we are taking the other person’s perspective. That is, it's a way to show empathic concern.
Researchers caution that the power of this type of apology has limitations. For example, apologizing too often may devalue and lessen the impact of an apology, and apologizing for the same incident more than twice may cause you to be viewed as insecure (Brooks et al., 2014).
So what is the lesson here? Taking the other person's perspective requires that we live our lives outside of our heads. It means being fully engaged in the present; living a life with awareness and empathy. Living like this is a skill which can be obtained with practice. I encourage you to dedicate a day to tune your attention to others and imagine what it's like to walk in their shoes. And then all you have to do is to allow your inner voice to guide your actions. You may find that this a rewarding way to live your life every day.
Brooks, Alison Wood, Dai, Hengchen, & Schweitzer (2014). I’m sorry about the rain! Superfluous apologies demonstrate empathic concern and increase trust. Social Psychology and Personality Science, 5(4), 467-474.
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