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What Happens After the Apology: Connecting Theory with Real Life

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Apologies are everywhere. We’ve all received them, we’ve all given them, and we’ve probably all seen many made in the public eye. But what happens after the apology is given? How can people respond to them? Understanding the ways people respond to apologies has considerable theoretical relevance for people like me who make a living out of studying them – but it also has real-life importance for anyone who has been, or will be, in a situation where they can choose how to respond to an apology.

Ask anyone how they respond to apologies and you’ll likely hear a broad spread of words like acceptance, rejection, forgiveness, and reconciliation. These kinds of responses feel intuitive and align with most peoples’ real-life experiences. Similarly, most people would probably agree that accepting an apology and forgiving the person who apologised are two separate responses. What some readers may be surprised to know, then, is that the current state of empirical research around responses to apologies does not present such a clear distinction between apology acceptance and forgiveness, suggesting a disconnect between theory and peoples’ real-life experiences of responding to apologies. 

Researchers who explore responses to apologies traditionally talk about the response as part of a staged corrective process wherein 1) an offence occurs; 2) the offender offers an apology to the victim; 3) the victim responds to the apology; and 4) there is an outcome of the corrective interchange, ideally concluding with some kind of mutual satisfaction.

The discrepancy between theory and real-life that I’m talking about is due in large part to how researchers typically choose to measure peoples’ responses to apologies (the third stage above). When researchers examine the outcomes of apologies, such as how and when apologies work or what makes them effective, they will often measure the outcome in terms of whether or not the recipient forgives the apologiser. This is perhaps unsurprising because not only is forgiveness considered an ideal response due to its relational, psychological, and even physical benefits, but there are numerous scales and measures with which to assess forgiveness that doesn’t exist for other response like the acceptance of the apology.

However, measuring responses to apologies exclusively in this way implies that the option of forgiveness, whether it is granted or not, is the only way one can respond to an apology they receive. Many studies that explore apologies don’t provide respondents with an option to rate the extent to which they accept the apology, resulting in little being known about apology acceptance and its relationship to, and difference from, forgiveness. By doing so, researchers inadvertently suggest that accepting an apology is not a way one can respond to an apology and is not a distinct response from forgiveness.

What happens, though, when the receiver of the apology doesn’t want to forgive the offender but feels their apology is valid and worth acknowledging? Or perhaps they accept the apology and feel they could eventually forgive the offender, but aren’t quite ready yet? Are we, as researchers and practitioners, just supposed to ignore these diverse responses to apologies?

These questions might seem trivial, but I think bridging the gap between how researchers measure responses to apologies and how people actually experience responding to apologies is important, particularly if researchers want to understand how, for example, people in victim-offender mediation settings or a civil law context respond to real-life apologies.

But there is hope – some researchers, including myself and my research team, are beginning to look more closely at apology acceptance and explore the differences between it and forgiveness, and we’re finding some pretty interesting stuff (if I do say so myself…)!

The area is definitely in its infancy, but it is undeniably ripe for a reinvigorated interest by researchers and practitioners alike. It is my hope that people within the academic community will begin to see, as I do, the importance of exploring it further and together gaining a better understanding of the real-life corrective processes that occur between wrongdoers and victims.

James Strickland is a social psychology researcher and PhD candidate at Edith Cowan University in Australia. 

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