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The Art of Apologizing Effectively Across Cultures


We all make mistakes. Nobody is perfect, and we all need to apologize at some point in our lives. Apologizing is important because it shows that you take responsibility for your actions and recognize that you have affected someone else negatively. 

However, apologizing helps repair damaged relationships, establish (and re-establish) trust, and reduce conflict. But how do you apologize in English? Especially in a multicultural workplace? Do we all apologize the same way (and for the same reasons) across cultures? In this post, we will explore how to apologize in English. We’ll look at tips to make sure your apology is conveying the right message, plus some useful phrases and expressions that can help you craft an effective apology.

Apologizing Across Cultures

How do people say sorry across cultures, and why? People in different countries apologize differently, and if you work in an international environment, you need to understand how to best deliver effective apologies across cultures.

Apologies in the United States and Japan

Based on research, an apology in the U.S. is not just saying sorry, but also admitting that you did something wrong and expressing regret for it.

  • Americans tend to explain why they're apologizing, and they view apologies as a way to take responsibility for their actions.
  • In Japan, apologies are seen as a way to show that you understand the burden you've caused for the person you're apologizing to and to acknowledge the relationship between you and that person. They're used to ease the stress in damaged relationships and show interconnectedness.
  • The Japanese are more likely to take the blame for something even when they are not responsible, while Americans are more willing to take the blame only when they are actually at fault (apologies often come by way of assuming guilt).
  • Americans are more likely to apologize for things they did themselves compared to Japanese, who are more likely to apologize for things a co-worker did.
  • Apologies tend to be more frequent in Japan than in the US.

Apologies in Canada and the UK

In Canada and the UK, people tend to over-apologize. There, the term “I’m sorry” does not assume guilt. Some may even say that in the UK, you can never apologize enough. A survey by BBC of more than 1,000 Brits found that that the average person says ‘sorry’ around eight times per day.

However, it might be that British and Canadian speakers use that kind of ‘sorry’ more often, but they wouldn’t be necessarily apologizing or taking the blame. They use it to express empathy.

Apologies in other cultures

  • In other countries, like France, apologizing too much or for something that isn't a big deal can come across as insincere.
  • Germans are also known for their honesty and directness, so you should be forthcoming (open) in your apology.

💡 Please remember that these facts are based on research and refer to general behaviors. Understanding cultural differences will make you a more effective communicator, but only if you also accept that we are all unique and influenced by many different factors, apart from the place where we grew up. If you’d like to increase your cultural intelligence, check out this blog post

Master the art of apology

Apologizing is hard because we don’t want to feel bad about ourselves. We need to have a positive image of ourselves, and our need to protect that can make sincerely apologizing quite hard.

But it is effective, as we mentioned at the beginning, to repair damaged relationships, reduce conflict, and build trust. In one study, Harvard Business School Alison Wood Brooks and her colleagues recruited a male actor to approach 65 strangers at a US train station on a rainy day and ask to borrow their cell phones. In half the cases, the stranger preceded his request with: “Sorry about the rain”. When he did this, 47% of strangers gave him their phone, compared to only 9% when he simply asked to borrow their phone. Further experiments confirmed it was the apology about the weather that mattered, not the politeness of the opening sentence.

In this section, we'll look at 5 steps that will help you craft an effective apology, regardless of the country you work in.

1. Know when to apologize (and when not to)

There is a common belief that over-apologizing constantly can give a negative impression at work. Research described in the book You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation indicates that "excessive" apologizing (like apologizing when you really don't need to) can make others feel you lack competence or confidence. And that is true in some contexts, but remember that it can also be an effective way to show empathy in some cultures. 

To avoid this, for small mistakes or lapses, try to express your apology in a positive frame. If you're late for a meeting! Instead of saying, "I'm sorry," try, "Thank you so much for your patience" or "Thank you for waiting while I dealt with that issue." Here are other examples:

  • “I am sorry to make you do this” → “Thank you very much for taking care of this.”

  • “I am sorry but I cannot make it to the party” → “Thank you for the invitation.”

  • “I am sorry to ask you this” → “Thank you for helping me out.”

2. Be clear and specific about what you did wrong

Don't try to hide your mistake or downplay its importance. Be upfront about what happened and why it was wrong. This will show that you're taking responsibility for your actions. Explain what happened. The challenge here is to explain how the offense happened without excusing it. In fact, sometimes the best strategy is to say there is no excuse. That means avoiding the word "but"!

Be specific. Avoid using vague or evasive language, or wording an apology in a way that minimizes the offense or questions whether the victim was really hurt.

  • “I apologize for whatever happened.” → "I am so sorry for missing the deadline on the project."

3. Acknowledge the impact of your mistake

People worry that an apology means admitting liability, when in reality is more of an effort to show empathy. Effective apologies address the recipients’ feelings; they don’t prove a point. If your mistake has caused inconvenience or hardship for others, be sure to acknowledge this in your apology. Showing empathy will demonstrate that you understand the impact of your actions and are truly remorseful.

  • "I understand that this has caused inconvenience for the team and I feel terrible about it."
  • "I now realize that this was disrespectful and unprofessional."

4. Explain how you plan to fix the problem.

If you made a mistake, don't just say that you're sorry –show that you're willing to take action to fix the problem. If possible, include a specific plan of how you'll resolve the situation. This shows that you're committed to making things right.

  • "I have re-evaluated my priorities and have made a plan to ensure this does not happen again in the future."

5. Keep it brief and sincere.

Your apology email doesn't need to be long or filled with flowery language - a brief, sincere message is usually best received. Get straight to the point and express your regret in a genuine way.

Ineffective wording to apologize

Let's look at some ineffective wording to say sorry. Try to avoid these!

  • “I apologize for whatever happened.” - The language is vague and the offense isn’t specified.
  • “Mistakes were made.” - The use of passive voice indicates you're avoiding taking responsibility.
  • “Okay, I apologize. I didn’t know this was such a sensitive issue for you.”  - This phrase sounds grudging and puts the blame back onto the offended person (for “sensitivity”).
  • "I'm sorry if you were offended" or "I'm sorry if it seemed like a big deal" - The second part of these apologies can make the situation seem smaller or less important than it really is, which can be seen as insincere.
  • "I'm sorry, but I was just following orders" - Using the word "but" will make your apology seem like you're trying to justify your actions, rather than acknowledging that you made a mistake.

Effective wording to apologize

Here are two good examples of apologies when you make a mistake:

  • "I am so sorry for missing the deadline on the project. I understand that this has caused inconvenience for the team and I feel terrible about it. I have re-evaluated my priorities and have made a plan to ensure this does not happen again in the future."
  • "I apologize for interrupting you during the meeting yesterday. I now realize that this was disrespectful and unprofessional. I have reflected on my behavior and understand the impact it may have had on you. I promise to listen carefully and allow others to speak without interruption in the future."

How to say sorry without saying sorry 

Combine these +20 phrases to apologize for a mistake professionally with the tips we shared above. 

  1. I apologize
  2. Please forgive me
  3. My apologies
  4. I regret
  5. I truly regret
  6. I feel terrible
  7. I take full responsibility
  8. I take this matter seriously
  9. I understand the impact of my actions
  10. I understand the consequences
  11. I promise to make it right
  12. I will take steps to improve
  13. I want to assure you
  14. I hope you can forgive me
  15. I hope to earn back your trust
  16. I am committed to making things right
  17. I am committed to doing better
  18. I am deeply sorry
  19. I am committed to being accountable.
  20. I am eager to make things right
  21. I hope to make it up to you
  22. I am willing to do whatever it takes
  23. I am dedicated to resolving the issue.


If you are willing to help your international employees improve their communication skills for the workplace, share our free communication resources with them. Distribute them internally and encourage them to make them part of their lifelong learning.

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