Saying 'sorry' is just second nature for most of us. Especially when we feel like we're letting someone down, 'sorry' just seems to soften the blow. However, new research is saying that apologies actually don't help as much as we think!
The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, is breaking new ground in the discussion around social interactions and politeness. The authors state that if you really don't want to hurt someone's feelings when rejecting them or letting them down, saying "I'm sorry" is something you shouldn't do!
Why? Well, when you tell someone you're sorry, you encourage them to feel sympathy towards you and want to forgive you, which actually makes it harder for them to accept. You're making the situation about you rather than about them.
Lead author Gili Freedman explained: “It puts them in a situation where they feel like they have to respond by saying, 'Oh, it's okay,' even if they don't feel that way at all. When those feelings don't match up, it can make them feel worse.”
Freedman and other researchers recruited over 1,000 people for the study. The participants were asked to think of a way to reject someone as a potential roommate. 39% of the responses contained some form of apology.
However, when the same people were asked how they'd feel if they were rejected, many claimed they would be more hurt by a response that contained an apology.
In another test, a group of people were told they were being rejected for an experiment involving hot sauce. They were told that they could, however, influence the amount of hot sauce that the new participants would have to taste. Those who received an apology in their rejection were more vengeful and asked for additional hot sauce to be given.
Finally, the participants were asked to watch videos of rejections. When they saw someone say "I'm sorry" as part of the rejection, they said they'd be more likely to forgive the person, even if they didn't actually feel any forgiveness.
From all of this, Freedman believes that many people apologize because we just think it's polite and the right thing to do, but it's also a way to be selfish and protect oneself when we know we're letting someone down.
Freedman admits that these findings don't apply to every kind of relationship and social interaction, and sometimes an apology is absolutely necessary, but she also encourages people to think more closely about certain situations and how people might feel when being rejected.
“If your motivation is to feel better about yourself, maybe you do want to apologize,” Freedman says. “But if you really are concerned about the other person’s feelings, know that offering an apology might not help much—and may make them feel even worse.”