Excuses and Apologies

I re-wrote the section on excuses for the next edition of TICB and I thought it might be useful to post here. The main difference between this one and the one in the 11th edition is that this one distinguishes excuses and apologies and discusses some qualities of the effective apology.

Repairing Conversational Problems: Excuses and Apologies

At times you may say the wrong thing; then, because you can’t erase the message (communication really is irreversible), you may try to offer some kind of an explanation; you’d try to account for what happened. Perhaps the most common methods for doing so are the excuse and the apology, two closely related conversational accounts.
Excuses, central to all forms of communication and interaction, are “explanations or actions that lessen the negative implications of an actor’s performance, thereby maintaining a positive image for oneself and others” (Snyder, 1984; Snyder, Higgins, & Stucky, 1983). Apologies are expressions of regret or sorrow for having done what you did or for what happened. Often the two are blended—I didn’t realize how fast I was driving (the excuse); I’m really sorry (the apology). Let’s separate them and look first at the excuse.

The Excuse

Excuses seem especially in order when you say or are accused of saying something that runs counter to what is expected, sanctioned, or considered “right” by the people with whom you’re talking. Ideally, the excuse lessens the negative impact of the message.

Some Motives for Excuse Making
The major motive for excuse making seems to be to maintain your self-esteem, to project a positive image to yourself and to others. Excuses also represent an effort to reduce stress: You may feel that if you can offer an excuse—especially a good one that is accepted by those around you—it will reduce the negative reaction and the subsequent stress that accompanies a poor performance.
Excuses also may enable you to maintain effective interpersonal relationships even after some negative behavior. For example, after criticizing a friend’s behavior and observing the negative reaction to your criticism, you might offer an excuse such as, “Please forgive me; I’m really exhausted. I’m just not thinking straight.” Excuses enable you to place your messages—even your possible failures—in a more favorable light.

Types of Excuses
Different researchers have classified excuses into varied categories (Scott & Lyman, 1968; Cody & Dunn, 2007). One of the best typologies classifies excuses into three main types (Snyder, 1984):
• I didn’t do it: Here you deny that you have done what you’re being accused of. You may then bring up an alibi to prove you couldn’t have done it, or perhaps you may accuse another person of doing what you’re being blamed for (“I never said that” or “I wasn’t even near the place when it happened”). These “I didn’t do it” types are generally the worst excuses (unless they’re true), because they fail to acknowledge responsibility and offer no assurance that this failure will not happen again.
• It wasn’t so bad: Here you admit to doing it but claim the offense was not really so bad or perhaps that there was justification for the behavior (“I only padded the expense account, and even then only modestly” or “Sure, I hit him, but he was asking for it”).
• Yes, but: Here you claim that extenuating circumstances accounted for the behavior; for example, that you weren’t in control of yourself at the time or that you didn’t intend to do what you did (“It was the liquor talking” or “I never intended to hurt him; I was actually trying to help”).

Good and Bad Excuses
The most important question for most people is what makes a good excuse and what makes a bad excuse (Snyder, 1984; Slade, 1995). How can you make good excuses and thus get out of problems, and how can you avoid bad excuses that only make matters worse? Good excuse makers use excuses in moderation; bad excuse makers rely on excuses too often. Good excuse makers avoid blaming others, especially those they work with; bad excuse makers blame even their work colleagues. In a similar way, good excuse makers don’t attribute their failure to others or to the company; bad excuse makers do. Good excuse makers acknowledge their own responsibility for the failure by noting that they did something wrong (not that they lack competence); bad excuse makers refuse to accept any responsibility for their failures. Not surprisingly, excuse makers who accept responsibility will be perceived as more credible, competent, and likable than those who deny responsibility (Dunn & Cody, 2000).
What makes one excuse effective and another ineffective will vary from one culture to another and will depend on factors already discussed such as the culture’s individualism–collectivism, its power distance, the values it places on assertiveness, and various other cultural tendencies (Tata, 2000). But, at least in the United States, researchers seem to agree that the best excuses in interpersonal communication contain five elements (Slade, 1995; Coleman, 2002).
1. You demonstrate that you really understand the problem and that your partner’s feelings are legitimate and justified. Avoid minimizing the issue or your partner’s feelings (“It was only $100; you’re overreacting,” “I was only two hours late”).
2. You acknowledge your responsibility. If you did something wrong, avoid qualifying your responsibility (“I’m sorry if I did anything wrong”) or expressing a lack of sincerity (“Okay, I’m sorry; it’s obviously my fault—again”). On the other hand, if you can demonstrate that you had no control over what happened and therefore cannot be held responsible, your excuse is likely to be highly persuasive (Heath, Stone, Darley, & Grannemann, 2003).
3. You acknowledge your own displeasure at what you did; you make it clear that you’re not happy with yourself for having done what you did.
4. You make it clear that your misdeed will never happen again.
Some researchers include a fifth step which is really an apology. Here you would request forgiveness for what you did. Let’s look at the apology more specifically.

The Apology

In its most basic form, an apology is an expression of regret for something you did; it’s a statement that you’re sorry. And so, the most basic of all apologies is simply: I’m sorry. In popular usage, the apology includes some admission of wrongdoing on the part of the person making the apology. Sometimes the wrongdoing is acknowledged explicitly (I’m sorry I lied) and sometimes only by implication (I’m sorry you’re so upset).
In many cases the apology also includes a request for forgiveness (Please forgive my lateness) and some assurance that this won’t happen again (Please forgive my lateness; it won’t happen again).
According to the Harvard Business School Working Knowledge website (http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/3481.html, accessed May 20, 2008) apologies are useful for two main reasons. Apologies (1) help repair relationships (as you can easily imagine) and (2) repair the reputation of the wrongdoer. So, if you do something wrong in your relationship, for example, an apology will help you repair the relationship with your partner and perhaps reduce the level of conflict. At the same time, however, realize that other people know about your behavior (just think Jerry Springer) and an apology will help improve the image of you that they have in their minds.
An effective apology, like an effective excuse, must be crafted for the specific situation. Effective apologies are situational. An effective apology to a long-time lover, to a parent, or to a new supervisor are likely to be very different because the individuals are different and the relationships are different. And so, the first rule of an effective apology is to take into consideration the uniqueness of the situation—the people, the context, the cultural rules, the relationship, the specific wrongdoing—for which you might want to apologize. Each situation will call for a somewhat different message of apology.
Nevertheless we can offer some general recommendations. Combining the insights of a wide variety of researches, seven dos and seven don’ts can be offered for apologizing effectively.

Seven Dos:
1. Do admit wrongdoing if indeed wrongdoing occurred. Accept responsibility. Own your own actions; don’t try to pass them off as the work of someone else. Instead of “Smith drives so slow, it’s a wonder I’m only 30 minutes late,” say “I should have taken traffic into consideration.”
2. Do be apologetic. Say (and mean) the words I’m sorry or What I did was wrong.
3. Do state in specific rather than general terms what you’ve done. Instead of “I’m sorry for what I did,” say “I’m sorry for getting drunk at the party and flirting with everyone.”
4. Do express understanding of how the other person feels and acknowledge the legitimacy of these feelings, for example, “You have every right to be angry; I should have called.”
5. Do express your regret that this has created a problem for the other person, “I’m sorry I made you miss your appointment.”
6. Do offer to correct the problem (whenever this is possible), “I’m sorry I didn’t clean up the mess I made; I’ll do it now.”
7. Do give assurance that this will not happen again. Say, quite simply, “It won’t happen again” or better and more specifically, “I won’t be late again.”

Seven Don’ts
At the same time that you follow the suggestions for crafting an effective apology, try to avoid these common ineffective messages:
1. Don’t apologize when it isn’t necessary.
2. Don’t justify your behavior by mentioning that everyone does it, for example, “Everyone leaves work early on Friday.”
3. Don’t justify your behavior by saying that the other person has done something equally wrong: “So I play poker; you play the lottery.”
4. Don’t accuse the other person of contributing to the problem. “I should have known you’re overly anxious about receiving the figures exactly at 9 a.m.”
5. Don’t minimize the hurt that this may have caused. Avoid such comments as, “So the figures arrived a little late. What’s the big deal?”
6. Don’t include excuses with the apology. Avoid such combinations as “I’m sorry the figures are late but I had so much other work to do.” An excuse often takes back the apology and says, in effect, I’m really not sorry because there was good reason for what I’ve done but I’m saying “I’m sorry” to cover all my bases and to make this uncomfortable situation go away.
7. Don’t take the easy way out and apologize through e-mail (unless the wrongdoing was committed in e-mail or if e-mail is your only or main form of communication). Generally, it’s more effective to use a more personal mode of communication—face-to-face or phone, for example. It’s harder but it’s more effective.

College Degrees Earned and Unearned

The recent news about West Virginia University awarding a master’s degree (that she apparently didn’t earn) to the governor’s daughter, prompts us to look more closely at what degrees actually mean. And, it’s not surprising that some attention should focus on President George Bush. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the Bush policies and whether you’re a Republican, a Democrat, or Independent you need to wonder how George Bush received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University in history. His lack of knowledge of history is actually quite glaring and so I wonder how he ever got a degree from Yale. I wouldn’t have been graduated from P.S. 3 in the Bronx without knowing some very basic facts of history (to say nothing of geography) that Bush didn’t seem to know.
But, this is not about Bush or about Heather Bresch (the Governor’s daughter who received the degree from WVU). Rather, this is about education and the people’s right to know. Specifically, Yale and Harvard and probably most of the Ivy League actively recruit high-profile students—especially students who are the sons and daughters of famous (and rich) parents. Not only will these universities be in line for massive financial donations but they also get lots of publicity from presidents, senators, and the like who sport a degree from their institution.
The fact that George Bush had a degree from Yale likely influenced some voters—after all, it’s not unlikely that people felt comfortable voting for a person who went to one of the most prestigious universities in the world—surely he must be intelligent and knowledgeable. But, that turned out not to be the case and so we wonder how he got that degree from Yale. Very likely we’ll never know. But, we can do something so that this doesn’t happen again. The proposal is very simple: whenever someone runs for political office in the United States, his or her complete college record should become public information. Much like a candidate’s tax returns are made public, so should the candidate’s college records. There are several good reasons for this proposal:
1. Colleges would be put on notice that their degrees have to be earned.
2. The government, especially since 9/11, has access to phone records, bank accounts, tax returns, surveillance videos, Internet searches, DNA data, and a host of other information on the average citizen. Why shouldn’t the average citizen (the voter) know about the educational background of someone running for office?
3. The educational background—and here I mean courses taken, grades earned, papers written, SAT scores, attendance records—the whole nine yards—of a political candidate. We have a right to know this because this is part of who the candidate is and because this will influence what that candidate does in office which in turn will impact everyone of us. We have the right to information that is relevant to the choices we make, in this case who we vote for. Whether any individual chooses to use this information when he or she votes, is of course up to the individual; some will likely use it and some won’t.
4. When a college hires a professor, a committee (sometimes several committees) looks carefully at the courses taken, the letters of recommendation, the dissertation written, and lots more. This is information that is relevant to the job for which the person is being considered. Isn’t this information also relevant to our selection of political candidates? And, in the case of a potential president of the United States, isn’t this information essential?


NCA Speaks Up

So, Ellen and Portia are getting married, now that California has repealed the ban against gay marriage. Can Rosie and Kelly be far behind? If you’re interested in the gay marriage issue from the point of view of the National Communication Association and the field of communication generally, take a look at CRTNET. You can get there by going to NCA’s website (www.natcom.org) and clicking on CRTNET and then clicking to unsubscribe, subscribe, or view archives. The relevant letters—as of today—are in the May 9, May 12, and May 16 archives.

Cultural Insensitivity

Just when I think we got it right, teaching about the importance of cultural awareness and sensitivity in our increasingly intercultural world, I find an article in the New York Times (5/19/08, p. A6) entitled, “U.S. Regret at Koran’s Desecration”. Apparently a U.S. soldier had “used the Koran for target practice at a shooting range.” The letter of apology—from the soldier (unidentified) and read by General Hammond—said “I sincerely hope that my actions have not diminished the partnership that our two nations have developed together.” Is he serious? This is not, I fear, a simple misstep by one soldier but a pervasive insensitivity and cultural ignorance that can only create more problems than we already have.


Change and Audience Analysis

The Change Report has some interesting implications for our discussions of audience analysis. I’m not sure I’ve seen any public speaking textbook that talks about geographical differences. For example, Northeasterners have a greater fear of death of a family member than do those from other areas of the country. Not surprisingly, Southerners are more likely to fear a hurricane or similar natural disaster than are those in other parts of the country. Southerners also worry more about the deterioration of personal finances than do Westerners. These types of survey findings, it seems to me, have interesting implications for selecting a topic, for gaining attention, for motivational appeals, and lots more.


Change and Communication

One of the interesting things about The Change Report is the importance of change in everyone’s life; it’s universal, it’s inevitable. Further, the two most frequent initial responses to change were: discussion with family and discussion with friends. Clearly, change and communication are closely related.
And yet we do very little with change in our teaching of communication. Although we talk about the stages of a relationship, for example, we don’t provide very much guidance for dealing with the inevitable changes that take place as you move toward or away from intimacy, say. It seems only in General Semantics is the nature of change and its implications for thought and behavior a major part of study. Static evaluation, dating statements, and the process nature of reality, for example, offer excellent guides for dealing with change.
We need to do more with teaching students how to adjust to change. Just brainstorming a bit, such topics might include: How do messages change with one’s position in the organizational hierarchy? How do you talk about your changing feelings in a romantic or friendship or family relationship? How do you move from friendship to romance? How do you come out and tell your parents you’re gay? How can you adapt to the change after your son or daughter comes out? How do you tell a loved one you’ve just been given bad news about your health? How do you tell your parents that you’re ready to move on and leave the nest? How do you explain the changes you’ve gone through when you ask for a divorce or separation? How do you adapt to again being single (after a divorce or separation, say)? How do you adapt to changes after being fired? Most of these questions actually are related to the findings in The Change Report.
One additional note may be added here: About 37% of the respondents claimed that they did not respond successfully to change. Among the regrets that people have about their unsuccessful dealing with change are: less stress; being more assertive; doing greater planning; doing things sooner, for example, looking for a job; worry less; and communicating more effectively.


Gender Differences

Here's a brief review of Michael Motley's study on why men and women miscommunicate. It's an interesting take on a much discussed issue.

Change and Gender

According to The Change Report (the website I noted in a previous post seems to have disappeared) both men and women say they respond to change successfully. The fears that men and women perceive as most stressful seem very similar, with a few differences. For example, the top 5 fears of men are (in order, beginning with the most stressful): death of a spouse, death of a family member, diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, a downward turn in personal finances, and disability. The top 5 fears reported by women are: death of a family member, death of a spouse, diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, a downward turn in personal finances, and the disability or illness of one’s partner. In their summary of gender differences, Change Report notes that men are more likely to fear disability and the death of a friend than are women. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to fear the death of a family member and the illness of a child than are men.

Gay Marriage and Communication

Since the issue of gay marriage is so central to all aspects of communication and relationships, a few words about the issue and particularly about the California Supreme Court’s recent ruling that prohibiting gay marriage is unconstitutional and discriminatory seem appropriate.
In fact, I would think this topic would make for some spirited classroom discussion. The issue is perhaps most relevant to the study of interpersonal communication and relationships (after all, the way in which a relationship is defined—semantically and politically—will influence the relationship and the way in which others respond to that relationship which in turn will influence the relationship further, and on and on). But, I think the topic will prove relevant in a variety of classes. For example, in interpersonal communication (if you’re using a stage model of relationships such as the one I present in my books or the models of Mark Knapp or Julia Wood, say), some interesting discussion might center on how the stages might differ among persons who can be married and persons who cannot be married? How does that one difference influence the possible progression up and down the relationship track? In a persuasion class, the arguments for and against gay marriage would make for an interesting exercise in logic and reasoning. In small group classes this topic would be a natural for an information-sharing discussion. And in mass media, the topic would make for some interesting comparisons among media outlets in the United States and throughout the world. And in all these courses, the relevance of this topic to the issue to ethics is obvious.
California is only the 2nd state (Massachusetts is the other) to recognize something so obvious as the fact that preventing one group of people from enjoying the benefits that are readily available to another group of people is discriminatory and unconstitutional. It’s helpful, I think, to remember that it was as recently as 1967 (June 12)—just 40 years ago—that the US Supreme Court ruled (in Loving v. Virginia) that bans against interracial marriage were unconstitutional. And it’s also relevant to recall that the prohibitions against interracial marriage were supported by some of the very same organizations (some religious, some political) that are now asking that GLBT people continue to be discriminated against. Wouldn’t it be nice if “marriage” was defined in terms of the love between two people and not by gender?
I wonder (and worry) about why discrimination against a group of people occupies so much of the time and energy of the very people and organizations who are supposed to be concerned with issues that can improve the quality of life for all people. Why would they not be more concerned with such issues as the war, the economy, an educational system in need of major renovation, an infrastructure desperately in need of repair, global warming, and pollution—to take just a few examples? I just don’t get it.



The Change Report, based on 1306 online interviews conducted by Southeastern Institute of Research has a lot to say about interpersonal communication and relationships so I thought I'd post a few items based on this report. The part of this research that has been highlighted by the press is its survey of the top fears that people have now and had in 1967 (when the Social Readjustment Rating Scale was published). There are some interesting differences and although the researchers caution that statistical comparisons should not be made, they do note that the findings can be interpreted as relative and directional. [Respondents were asked to give a numerical value (from 1 to 100) to a variety of stressful events.] In 1967 the death of a spouse was rated 100 but in 2007 it was rated 80. The death of a friend, on the other hand, showed a different direction. In 1967 it was 37 but in 2007 it was 58.
Also interesting was the rating given to divorce--in 1967 it received a rating of 73 but in 2007 it had dropped to 66. It seems relationship stressors are easier to navigate today than they were in 1967.
On the other hand, stress from being laid off from a job went from 47 in 1967 to 62 in 2007 and changing job field went from 36 in 1967 to 47 in 2007. It seems that job stressors are getting worse.


Rockefeller, Harvard, and Elitism

The comment on my post about Rockefeller and Harvard deserves a response. Basically, 3 items: First, Rockefeller did not profit from Harvard in any meaningful way; Harvard, on the other hand, profited from Rockefeller. Rockefeller profited from a family fortune--Harvard probably had little to do with it. Rockefeller was probably well educated before he went to Harvard and would have been as successful as he was had he gone to any city or state college. Second, I don't think the motivation for giving should be based on where you went to school or what organization you're a member of, but rather on where your money can do the most good. And, Harvard, isn't the spot, IMHO. Third, this type of giving is just an example of the elite giving to the elite to perpetuate their own elitism. Having said this, I believe that Rockefeller has the right to give his money where he wants, but I don't have to believe there was such noble purpose to this gesture or that the money could not have been spent more wisely or more honorably. Success--whether financial or academic--entails responsibilities and I don't see this $100,000,000 gift to Harvard as meeting the responsibilities of someone so enormously wealthy.

Blog Links

Take a look at the blogs (Communication Overload and Communicate Better) under links. I think you'll find them both interesting and useful.