Just this last month, the German pharmaceutical company “Chemie Grunenthal” apologized after it was confirmed that the morning-sickness drug they produced was related to birth defects.  This of course was 50 years after it was pulled off the shelves.

To admit a mistake in front of your world can be a dangerous thing.  How does it affect your brand, your customer base, your legacy? The response to a mistake can make or break how you bounce back from it.

Looking at how companies apologize in different cultures brings a lot of insight and guidance when it comes to the art of saying “I’m sorry”.  The opening example is fairly typical of a German company which will often take decades to admit to any official mistake.

Japanese executives who come from a face-saving culture with a high value on quality are routinely forced to apologize for not meeting high expectations.  When Toyota had to issue a massive recall in 2009, the president of the company used words like “agonizing”, “extremely regrettable” and “deep remorse”.

When the American airline JetBlue had a serious logistics failure keeping passengers stuck on airplanes for several hours, they issued a public apology.  Their COO did his best to come across as a regular guy who is just trying to put things back in order.

Here in India, the word “apology” is most frequently found after the word “demand”, usually referring to an outraged group or political party which wants someone to be held accountable.  Sensitivities run high, but it is often difficult to find someone at the top level willing to accept responsibility.

One thing which is common among all apologies is the fact that people are usually not satisfied with them.  Either they are not sincere enough, or their method of making amends is not fair.  It seems that everyone is using a different scale to judge whether an apology was “good enough” or not, and it’s hard to get a perfect score.

You may not find yourself as the spokesperson for a massive tragedy, but the ability to apologize in different cultures is definitely a part of the Global Leader’s skill set.  Author Gary Chapman has said that there are 5 “languages” or elements to an apology:

  1. Expressing regret – “I’m sorry”
  2. Accepting responsibility – “I’m wrong”
  3. Making restitution – “How can I make this right?”
  4. Genuine repentance – “I will do my best to never do that again”
  5. Requesting forgiveness – “Please forgive me”

One of those probably means a lot more than the other ones to you depending on your upbringing and culture.  If you ever find yourself in a place where you need to give an apology (in the business world or outside of it), think through all the different “languages” and make sure you are addressing the one that is most important to your audience.  Speaking directly to your listener’s most important concern will help you and them move forward to a better place.