People tend to apologize when saying “no” to soften the blow of the rejection. But according to a study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, it could actually work against you.
In the first part of the study, researchers gave volunteers scenarios of saying “no” to a friend or acquaintance. For instance, some were asked how to reject a meetup from a dating site, while others shared how they’d respond if they wanted to stop hanging out with a new friend they met at a party. About 39 percent of the volunteers included an apology when sharing a “good way of saying no” to the situations.
But that apology might actually do more harm than good, the study found. Another set of volunteers gauged how much their feelings would hurt from each of the “good” responses. The apologies didn’t do anything to ease the pain of rejection—and in most scenarios, the apologies actually made the “rejected” volunteers feel worse.
“Contrary to popular belief, apologies don’t soften the blow of rejections,” Gili Freedman, PhD, lead author of this study, says in a statement. (Don’t miss these other things you need to stop apologizing for.)
The study authors also looked at how much revenge people took after different apologies. People who were in on the study told the volunteers they didn’t want to work together for the next task—right before the unknowing volunteers were supposed to give them hot sauce. The accomplices said they didn’t like spicy food, so the researchers used the amount of hot sauce the volunteers gave as a measure of revenge.
Here’s the kicker: Saying sorry actually made the participants more vengeful. When told, “No. I’m sorry. I don’t want to work with you,” the volunteers gave more hot sauce than they did when the other person didn’t apologize. (When you actually do need to say sorry, this is the one word that will make an apology worse.)
And with all these hurt feelings, an apology might actually make the other person feel obligated to forgive you before they’re ready. In the last part of the study, researchers showed participants videos of one person telling a roommate they didn’t want to live with them the next year. After hearing an apology, the volunteers said the other roommate would be more likely to express forgiveness, but no more likely to feel it.
“Our research finds that despite their good intentions, people are going about it the wrong way,” says Dr. Freedman. “They often apologize, but that makes people feel worse and that they have to forgive the rejector before they are ready.” So next time you need to say “no” to someone, leave the apology out of it. But when you do need to say sorry be sure to use these three secrets for the perfect apology.