Culture & Society

When Personal Honor Prevents Us from Saying Sorry

Understanding how “honor cultures” influence people’s willingness to apologize can help reduce conflict.

December 05, 2022

| by Katia Savchuk
A photo of a retro typewriter with a piece of paper in it. On the paper are the words "I am sorry." Credit: iStock/Michail_Petrov-96

Is it too late now to say sorry? It may depend on how much you value your reputation. | iStock/Michail_Petrov-96

It can be hard to say you’re sorry, but cultural factors can make it harder. People in societies that prize honor are less likely to apologize when they’ve done something wrong, cross-cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand and her colleagues find in a recent paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Yet there’s a way to foster apologies in honor cultures: Appeal to people’s sense of virtue.

“Apologies are an important mechanism for reducing the temperature and the first step in conflict resolution,” says Gelfand, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Saying sorry not only repairs personal relationships but also can keep professional and geopolitical clashes from spiraling out of control. Increasing people’s “cultural intelligence” about how different societies handle conflict can help travelers, politicians, and business leaders, Gelfand says.

Researchers define “honor cultures” as those in which self-worth must be earned and maintained and can easily be lost or stolen. In such locales, people gain honor by projecting strength or demonstrating moral integrity. Honor cultures often evolve in places with weak institutions that residents can’t rely on for protection. Examples include the Middle East, South America, Eastern Europe, and the U.S. South. By contrast, much of the U.S. is considered a “dignity culture,” where self-worth is intrinsic, while many cultures in East Asia cultivate a “face culture,” in which self-worth depends on the perceptions of others but respect and harmony are central. Research has shown that conflict can be more common and escalate more quickly in honor cultures. When it does, Gelfand and her colleagues note, it can lead to everything from domestic assault and duels to gang violence and suicide bombings.

Gelfand had a hunch that people in honor cultures might be less willing to be contrite because it threatens their reputations. “The act of apologizing is admitting wrongdoing — and, in effect, can make people lose honor — a prized commodity in these contexts,” she says.

The act of apologizing is admitting wrongdoing — and in effect, can make people lose honor.
Michele Gelfand

She and her colleagues tested that notion through a series of experiments. First, they scored U.S. states on how much their residents valued honor, based on factors like argument-related homicides and military enlistment rates. Next, they created an “apology dictionary,” a list of 44 words associated with apologizing, such as “regret,” “admit,” and “ashamed.” Using a machine learning algorithm, they searched how often those words appeared in 2.5 million speeches made by members of Congress over more than three decades. They found that politicians from states that placed a higher premium on honor were less likely to apologize publicly.

To see if the findings held up in the general population, they looked at how often people Googled “how to apologize” between 2017 and 2021; again, those in high-honor states were less likely to do so. “We can observe this trend in real life — it’s not just something we produce in a lab,” says Ying Lin, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford GSB who co-authored the paper.

To see if the findings persisted across borders, the team recruited undergraduates from Turkey, considered an honor culture, and an American university where most students were from Maryland, a state that ranks low on valuing honor. They presented the students with hypothetical scenarios in which they had wronged a friend, such as spreading rumors or damaging their stuff. When asked to write down what they would do, the Americans were more than twice as likely to say they’d apologize. “The difference is just huge,” Lin says. “I was a little surprised.”

From Virility to Virtue

The researchers wanted to examine why people in honor cultures are less willing to say sorry. In another study, they shared hypothetical scenarios about causing offense with a group of American adults. Once more, people who valued honor were less willing to apologize, mainly because they were worried that admitting wrongdoing would tarnish their image. “They’re concerned about their reputation,” Lin says. “Others will see me as incompetent or I will look weak to other people in the society if I apologize.”

The researchers also wanted to test whether the link between honor cultures and an aversion to apologies was more than a correlation: Did valuing honor cause someone to avoid saying sorry? To find out, they asked a sample of American adults to imagine they lived in a future society. Some were assigned to a community that valued protecting one’s reputation, while others were placed in one that prized entertainment and leisure. Highlighting concerns about honor and reputation (what the authors termed “virility”) significantly dampened people’s willingness to apologize.

Gelfand and her team theorized that shifting participants’ perspectives on honor might reverse this trend. “Honor is about both virility and virtue, or moral integrity,” Gelfand says. Indeed, when the researchers added a third scenario — a society that values moral behavior or virtue — people were more likely to apologize and considered apologies more effective than those primed to think about reputation. “When we start activating people’s thoughts about honor being about virtue or integrity, it allows them to overcome this reluctance to apologize,” Gelfand says.

The team’s findings have the potential to reduce friction in families, business relationships, and international relations. “It might cause a lot of cross-cultural miscommunication and misunderstanding when you expect an apology but it’s not forthcoming,” Gelfand says. “Once we can shift the focus to virtue, we can perhaps help people manage conflict better and still uphold their cultural values.”

Gelfand says there’s much more to learn about the cultural dynamics of apologies and forgiveness. Is it more acceptable for certain people to say sorry in honor-based societies? Can apologies become contagious, spreading through a society once someone sets an example? How can we best manage disputes and negotiations that are fundamentally about honor? “Honor cultures are still poorly understood in psychology and organizational behavior,” Gelfand says.

Further research on these topics could help people get along better with those with different values. “We’re not trying to say, ‘How do we change honor cultures?’” Gelfand says. “We have to work through the psychology of honor.”

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