Sunday, February 26, 2012

No Apology, No Way

Not too long ago, my sister told me about an incident at work in which both she and a Taiwanese coworker had independently made mistakes on similar projects (test-writing, I believe). When told that she'd messed up, my sister apologized and said she'd get right on fixing the error. She noted that her coworker did not - she said "Oh, uh, OK" and fixed it. I, too, thought it was odd to not apologize for a minor error that is clearly your fault,  but let it go. Then, at my job, I asked for a certain worksheet I'd created for them years ago to be prepared for my use for an upcoming seminar. In the intervening time they'd "lost" the digital file somehow, so I had to re-create the worksheet. They didn't actually tell me that they didn't have it until the night before, which put pressure on me (despite my asking many times for confirmation). Instead of "we're sorry" or "we apologize", I got a "I have checked with ______ and we do not have the worksheet you requested". I replied and said I was disappointed and felt their actions were unprofessional, and noted that when dealing with foreigners, it smoothes office relations quite a bit to own up to your mistakes and apologize. I'm blunt like that. I got no reply.

It got me thinking: is this a thing? I think it is, but I only have two anecdotes to back me up. In the US if you say you're sorry for some internal office screw-up and then present a solution and work to make it right, people will generally drop it, if not forget about it altogether. As though those two words are like memory erasers: "oh she screwed up...but she owned it, she apologized and we all make mistakes. So let's forget about it." In Taiwan, maybe apologizing causes you to lose too much face? Or admitting that yes, you made a mistake will cause people to remember and criticize you rather than forget? That if you mess up, the tacit social agreement is that you won't admit it and others won't draw attention to it? That it's not the smoother-over of interpersonal interactions the way it is back home?

Which would be fine if everyone lived by that rule, but we don't. In offices where you have to deal with foreigners, either in-house or from abroad, you need to know these things, because the average foreigner won't understand that cultural difference and will feel miffed and annoyed at the lack of apology or even recognition and ownership of the mistake. Not owning it will cause that person to remember it, not forget about it. They might not say anything, but the feeling is there and it does jeopardize relations.

It makes me wonder if I should be teaching this in my business etiquette class...


Catherine said...

It's about losing face. I gave your blog post to my husband to read, who is Taiwanese. He would do the same, because he feels he would be blamed and lose face. If you lose face too many times, your status among your colleagues droops, you can be outcasted. Even worse, if gossip spreads to management level. It's definitely a cultural thing.

Jenna Cody said...


I guess I feel that if you make a mistake, then you SHOULD be blamed.

I also feel that being blamed doesn't necessarily equate to loss of face, or at least it shouldn't. As long as it wasn't a common thing or the mistake wasn't massive, taking the blame for something you did is a way to get everyone to forget about it, and people will generally say back home "well, we all make mistakes".

And how you save face? By taking responsibility. We see that as being a mature person and accord it respect.

But...can't change a whole culture, especially if I'm not of that culture, so the best I can do is start teaching it as something to keep in mind when dealing with foreigners.

Michael Turton said...

Heh. Re your lost file: I sometimes feel there's a testing process going on. I got a class next year teaching MBA students. Please prepare a sylla bus for next semester so we can submit for outside review. After I go through the whole process, I find out they already had a syll but had never told me! Sometimes they want to play the "we know more than you game." Sometimes it is to remind you of your lower status and dependence on them. Sometimes it is a foul-up which (goes without saying) they don't apologize for.


Readin said...

Interesting observation. I'll have to keep that in mind.

I have noticed that my wife almost never apologizes for anything.