Situation- and relationship-dependent differences regarding six different forms of apologies

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2022

14 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of Contents

1. Introduction and brief review of literature

2. The study
2.1. Sample
2.2. Method

3. Results
3.1. Discussion
3.2. Implications
3.3. Limitations

4. Conclusion and Prospects

5. Bibliography

6. Table of figures


Apologies as a form of politeness have been studied in various contexts over the last years. This paper aims to determine situation- and relationship-dependent differences regarding six different forms of apologies. To do so, a questionnaire containing 19 items was distributed online via social media to various groups of English speakers (N=36). The results partly conform with the existing literature of Deutschmann (2003), but also show that in power relations the need for an apology can come from both parties. Moreover, the most popular forms of apologies were explicit apologies and apologies + the offer of repair, supporting previous studies such as Holmes' (1990). Due to the small sample and limited comparability, the results must be interpreted with caution and future research is needed to support the findings from the present study.

Keywords: forms of apologies, politeness, power relations, social distance, responsibility

1. Introduction and brief review of literature

Studies on linguistic politeness have been conducted in extensive research since Brown & Levinson's (1978) work “Universals in language usage: politeness phenomena”. However, this paper is dedicated to a specific subcategory of politeness, the apology. Brown & Levinson (1987) see it as Face-Threatening-Act-oriented (FTA) “culturally stabilized interaction rituals with conventionalised formulae” (p. 235). In other words, there exist culturally specific widely known patterns on how to apologize appropriately. The factors that determine the form of the apology include social distance, power relationships and speaker/addressee needs (Deutschmann, 2003). Holmes (1990) sums up the essence of an apology as follows: "An apology is primarily and essentially a social act. It is aimed at maintaining good relations between participants. To apologize is to act politely, [...]" (p. 156). This implies the need for an apology to maintain a good relationship with the other person, regardless of the power relationship between them. However, it is also known that the relationship to one's siblings can be considered good, even though apologies often consist of impoliteness, mocking, excuses or “Schadenfreude”, whereas explicit apologies are rare (Schleien, Ross, & Ross, 2010).

As it was already mentioned in the beginning, a lot of researchers have dedicated their work to politeness and more specifically apologies. For example, Holmes' (1990) findings suggest that single apology strategies and a combination of strategies seem to be equally popular. In most of the cases where a single apology strategy was used, it was a form of an explicit apology. Deutschmann (2003) concluded in his studies that “casual” apologies, meaning a minimization of responsibility, increased when the social distance between the speakers decreased. Interestingly, he also mentions that in relationships with differences in relative power, such as employee vs. employer, sincere apologies were more often found with the more powerful speaker.

As this paper contains a word limit, the literature review is kept brief and the empirical part will specifically concentrate on the findings of these studies. This paper aims to analyse apologies in different social settings between various relationships. Therefore, the already outlined literature is compared with the empirical work presented in chapter three. It was conducted through a self-designed questionnaire including three situations implying apologies in five different relationship contexts respectively. Then the results are outlined, the findings interpreted, and the research questions are answered. Lastly, implications and limitations are mentioned. A conclusion rounds up the paper.

2. The study

In the context of the previous studies outlined in the literature review, the present study aims to identify attitudes towards different apology situations and whether they support the findings:

(a) Does there exist a preferred type of apology in general?
(b) Does a great relative power distance (person-boss) entail an explicit apology?
(c) Does a small social distance (person-mother/sister) entail a minimization of responsibility?

Research question (a) analyses, whether one or more types of apologies are preferred over others depending on the relationship or the situation. Research questions (b) and (c) aim to answer whether power relations and degree of social distance influence the amount of responsibility taken for the offence.

2.1. Sample

The population included in this research paper comprises of student teachers from the Cluster Mitte but also foreign speakers of Japanese, Arabic, Portuguese, Swiss-German, Italian and Nihongo. Altogether, 36 participants took part in the questionnaire, all of whom finished the questionnaire. About half (55,56%) of the participants were within the age limit of 18-25 years, 10 people (27,78%) were between 26-35 years and both three participants were between 36 and 45 and 46 and 55 respectively. More female (24) than male (11) speakers participated in the study; one participant selected the gender “other”. Most of the speakers (13) share German as their mother tongue, followed by 7 Japanese/Portuguese bilinguals and 5 Japanese speakers. Four participants had English as their first language and one speaker of Portuguese, Italian, Swiss-German, Nihongo and Arabic respectively as well as one German/English and German/Bosnian bilingual. All participants selected English as one of their spoken languages, with 17 participants speaking three or more languages.

2.2. Method

For this paper, an online questionnaire including 19 items was distributed via social media and email. The questionnaire consisted of two main sections: a general section to identify parameters such as age, gender, mother tongue and languages spoken. Then three similar social situations implying the need for an apology were projected on five different types of social relationships:

- Person - boss
- Person - stranger
- Person - a female friend
- Person - mother
- Person - sister

The relationships were chosen according to the model of politeness by Brown & Levinson (1987) including the two variables relative power (P) and social distance (D). Factors that determine relative power can include relative status, knowledge, or experience (Holmes, 1990). Social distance can be divided into three broad classes: (I) - very close friends or intimates such as spouses, family members or partners, (F) - friends or colleagues and (S) - distant acquaintances and strangers. The first relationship is between the employee and their employer, marking a reasonable social distance (F) but a great difference in relative power. The second relationship displays equal status in relative power but a large social distance (S). The third relationship marks equality for the (P) variable and a reasonably small social distance variable (F). Relationships number four and five both have a very small social distance (I) but display differences in terms of the (P) variable: as there should be considerable respect for a parent, it is expected to be a difference in relative power (P) between the child and their mother, whereas siblings are considered to equal regarding (P). For each of the relationships, three different situations of offence were created:

- (a) the accidental spilling of coffee over the other person
- (b) the accidental stepping on the other person's foot
- (c) the accidental destruction of the other person's mobile device

The situations were chosen according to some of Aijmer's (1996, as cited in Deutschmann, 2003) offence categories: space and possession for (a), space for (b) and possession for (c). Deutschmann (2003) sums the three situations up under the category “accidents”. The situations were also classed after the seriousness of the offence (R) into three categories (b) light offence, (a) medium offence and (c) heavy offence (Holmes, 1990).

Every question included seven possible answers in a single choice format. While the exact answers were altered to fit the situation, the types of apologies (stated in brackets) were maintained. The example below shows the possible answer for the first situation “You're at work and you accidentally bump into your boss and spill your coffee all over her. What would you say to apologize?”:

- (a) Oh! I'm so sorry! (explicit apology)
- (b) Oh! I'm so stupid! (self-deprecation)
- (c) Watch where you're going! (impoliteness / blaming someone else)
- (d) I feel so bad, it will never happen again. (promise of forbearance)
- (e) I'm so sorry! Let me clean that up for you. (apology + offer of repair)
- (f) I'm in such a hurry! Sorry! (excuse + apology)
- (g) Other:

Apologies can either be forms where the person apologizing takes on responsibility or where the person tries to minimise responsibility. The seven categories were chosen according to this differentiation. Examples (a), (b), (d) and (e) signal taking on responsibility, (f) demonstrates the intention to minimise it and (c) shows no responsibility at all.

To answer the research questions, the descriptive variables for the three situations in the five different relationship contexts were calculated. The data analysis was conducted through the software Jamovi (The Jamovi Project, 2021) and Microsoft Excel. As the questionnaire was distributed online, the contact details of the researcher were included. The participants took part in the study voluntarily, and the answers were anonymised.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Situation- and relationship-dependent differences regarding six different forms of apologies
University of Salzburg
Intercultural Communication: Speech Acts, Politeness and Genres Across Cultures
Catalog Number
forms of apologies, politeness, power relations, social distance, responsibility
Quote paper
Axel Kolbeinsson (Author), 2022, Situation- and relationship-dependent differences regarding six different forms of apologies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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