It’s a well-worn stereotype that the great citizens of Canada apologize a lot—so much so, in fact, that there’s a law about it. The Apology Act, passed by the province of Ontario in 2009, reminds litigants that “a statement that a person is sorry” or any other “expression of sympathy or regret” following an incident should not be considered an admission of fault or liability by the apologizer. In other words, “I’m sorry you found spittle on your Tim Bits” does not legally mean, “I apologize for spitting on your Tim Bits.” Leave it to Canada to legalize sympathy.
Ribbing aside, the Apology Act reminds us that there’s more to saying “I’m sorry” than simple guilt or regret. Recent research confirms that an apology—even for something completely out of the apologizer’s control, like nasty weather or heavy traffic—can also serve as the powerful foundation for building trust with strangers. Breaking the ice with “sorry,” it seems, might even help you get what you want. (For those of you who apologize way too much, here are the 23 things you don’t need to be sorry about.)
A few years ago, researchers from Harvard Business School and University of Pennsylvania tested the link between what they called “superfluous apologies” and trustworthiness in a series of four experiments. The study culminated in a field test that sent one student walking around a busy Northeastern train station on a rainy November day, asking strangers if he could borrow their phones. Throughout his 65 interactions with the strangers (30 male, 35 female), the student followed one of two scripts. To half the commuters, he simply asked, “Can I borrow your cell phone?” To the other half, he led with a superfluous apology: “I’m so sorry about the rain! Can I borrow your cell phone?”
Now you may be rightly thinking, “what on God’s wet Earth does the weather have to do with handing over your beloved mobile device to a total stranger?” And the answer, of course, is nothing—that’s exactly why the researchers were interested in the scenario. By apologizing unnecessarily for the weather, the student in the station wasn’t trying to take responsibility for the rain, or even cite a reason for needing to borrow a phone (logical thinkers crave reason, after all). What he was doing was showing empathy‚ putting himself in the stranger’s presumably soggy shoes and saying, “I understand how you feel.” This snap gift of empathy, the researchers speculated, would make the phone-users instantly more trusting of the phone-borrower, and more likely to reciprocate with their help.
Amazingly, the instant-empathy recipe worked. Of the 32 people the student delivered his superfluous apology to, 15 of them (or 47%) handed over their phones. Only three of the 33 strangers in the non-apology group (just 9%) did the same. That’s a huge shift in compliance, all thanks to a well-placed “sorry.” The researchers summarized their conclusions in the paper thusly: “Superfluous apologies represent a powerful and easy-to-use tool for social influence. Even in the absence of culpability, individuals can increase trust and liking by saying ‘I’m sorry’—even if they are merely ‘sorry’ about the rain.”
Preschool teachers around the world, consider yourselves hereby vindicated: ‘Sorry’ really is a magic word.
Up next: The most complicated word in English only has three letters. Do you know it?