Britain: The World’s Most Apologetic Nation?

I’m profoundly sorry”. That’s how Matt Hancock, the former Health Secretary, expressed his regret at the Covid enquiry in London on 27th June for his part in the mistakes that ensured the UK had not been properly prepared for the pandemic. Indeed, as the Guardian journalists Peter Walker and Robert Booth noted that day in their coverage of the event, Hancock became quite emotional when acknowledging his responsibility for “all the things that had happened, both in his department and with the agencies that reported to him”.

Yet it appears from a recent YouGov survey that this display of contrition is unlikely to have convinced the British public. Its statistics, cited by the Progressive Policy Think Tank IPPR, indicate that trust in politicians has dropped by 9% in 18 months and that only 4% of those questioned believe that parliamentarians are doing their best for the country. Nor, so it seems in Hancock’s case, did the words he chose to express his penitence prove particularly persuasive.

Another YouGov study has shown that only 34% of respondents consider a declaration, whether by a public figure or an organisation, that they are “Sorry for the bad experience with us” to be a genuine apology and “We regret the inconvenience caused” (for example, for the cancellation of a flight) just 48%.

The problem for large corporations in particular and for anyone with a high media profile, as the Huffington Post correspondent Marina Fang pointed out on November 10th, is that the logistics of an apology can get complicated , hence crisis communications professionals are often involved in its formulation. It must sound completely authentic, not easy when “ego and power are added to the mix”, as the public can immediately discern whether whoever is making it is being forced to do so in order to downplay the dimensions of the scandal.

Aaron Lazare, the former Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has defined a “non-apology” as an attempt to persuade citizens that the future will be better and the past should be forgotten, while a “pseudo-apology” only provides a vague and incomplete acceptance of the offence. There will probably also be, observes Fang, “a lot of different audiences for the apology, depending on the situation”, such as a company’s board members, shareholders, business partners, customers and employees as well as fans of sports clubs or families who’ve been adversely affected and are looking for recompense.

Furthermore, if there are ongoing legal proceedings involved, these could limit what the person can say and the extent to which they can profess their remorse. This was a factor of which the Government of the Province of Ontario in Canada was acutely aware when it ratified its “Apology Act” on April 23rd 2009. This stipulates that an apology cannot be considered as an admission of fault or liability and is not admissible in any civil proceedings initiated by the person apologised to. Which presumably is why a restaurant in the county of Cayuga, Ontario, felt there was no risk for them in putting a sign outside proclaiming that they offered “ All Day Breakfast, Bad Food, Lousy Service, We’re Open, Sorry”.

With the exception of the territory of Yukon, all Canadian jurisdictions, as well as 30 states in the US, have adopted similar legislation, the objective being “to avoid litigation and encourage the early and cost-effective resolution of disputes”.

Karina Schumann, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, has emphasised that, although it’s difficult to compile data on the frequency of apologies in different countries, “there’s certainly speculation that the Canadians and British do so more than, for instance, the Americans”. YouGov has estimated that 80% of people in the UK say “sorry” if they’re in someone’s way in a doorway, but just 72% in the US and 58% if they make a joke that upsets someone, compared to 50% in the US.

According to a nationwide study commissioned by the chocolate biscuit vendor PICKUP!, highlighted by the contributor Alice Broster, 88% of British residents admit to regularly saying “sorry” for things that aren’t their fault, with a large number apologising an average eight times a day, 4380 times every year and on up to 200,000 occasions during their lives. In her book “Watching The English”, the British anthropologist Kate Fox, co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC), describes how, when she walked down a street deliberately bumping into people, 80% of them said “sorry” to her despite the fact she was the one who’d caused this to happen.

It thus seems, suggests Broster, that there’s no limit to what people in Britain will say sorry for, including when someone is standing on their foot in a crowded underground train or they’d like to occupy an empty seat on which another passenger has placed their bag.

The “Sports Beats India” website diplomatically attributes the British inclination to apologise so frequently to “their natural aversion to confrontation” their desire to diffuse potentially tense situations and maintain social harmony.

Filed under: Politics, Society | Posted on December 6th, 2023 by Colin D Gordon

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