Apologies in business communication
«Apologies in business communication»
by Jūratė Ruzaitė; Laura Čubajevaitė
Estonian Papers in Applied Linguistics (Eesti Rakenduslingvistika Ühingu aastaraamat), issue: 3 /
2007, pages: 6781, on www.ceeol.com.
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APOLOGIES IN BUSINESS COMMUNICATION
Laura Čubajevaitė, Jūratė Ruzaitė
Abstract. The aim of the present paper is to examine the routine of
apologizing in spoken business communication. Being face-threaten-
ing acts, apologies are of special importance in communication. Since
apologies express sincerity and are remedial acts, apologizing helps
to enhance mutual respect and to keep the relationship between col-
EESTI RAKENDUSLINGVISTIKA ÜHINGU AAST
leagues stable, which is especially important in business communica-
tion. The present analysis focuses on four main expressions of explicit
apologies, i.e. apologies with sorry, I apologise, pardon and excuse
me. The data have been obtained from the sub-corpus of the British
National Corpus, which includes transcripts of business communica-
tion and amounts to 1,321,844 words. The analysis accounts for the
general frequency of different forms of apology in business commu-
nication as well as their frequency in relation to gender. The paper
also focuses on the most typical patterns of apologies and argues that
apologies range from neutral to highly emphatic or tentative. Finally,
the present analysis investigates what is commonly apologised for in
Keywords: apologies, face-saving, politeness, gender, situational
The present paper discusses the routine of apologizing in spoken business
communication. Apologies are of special importance in any communication since
they have illocutionary force and thus are considered as speech acts; importantly,
they are face-threatening acts. By admitting his/her fault, the speaker may lose face;
therefore, to lessen the face-threat, special politeness strategies are required for an
apology. When apologizing, most commonly speakers follow a highly predictable
communicative routine to make the apology less personal and thus less face-
threatening. On the other hand, apologizing is an act of expressing sincerity and a
way of compensating for some damage caused to the hearer(s); thus apologizing
helps to enhance mutual respect and to keep the relationship between colleagues
stable. In business communication, where stable partnership and mutual respect
are especially signiﬁcant, apologies play a special role.
The present analysis focuses on four main expressions of explicit apologies, i.e.
apologies with sorry, I apologise, pardon and excuse me. Implicit apologies have
not been taken into account since, as Robin Tolmach Lakoff (2001: 201) rightly
observes, apologies in general (and especially the implicit ones) are “hard to identify,
deﬁne, or categorize”. The analysis is primarily based on the corpus approach. The
data have been obtained from the sub-corpus of the British National Corpus, which
includes transcripts of business communication and amounts to 1,321,844 words.
To make the data related to different genders comparable and to compensate for
the uneven number of the words uttered by men and women in the corpus, relative
frequencies (per 1 million words) will be calculated and will be presented in the
analysis instead of absolute numbers.
The present analysis will focus on several aspects of explicit apologies. First of
all, the general frequency of different forms of apologies will be examined. Their
frequency will also be related to the social factor of gender to see whether male
or female speakers apologise more extensively and whether they have any prefer-
ence for different forms of apologies. Following the existing stereotypes, it can be
hypothesized that women are more apologetic than men. Another aspect that will be
studied is the usage patterns, which mainly include syntactic structures of different
apologies. Finally, the paper will attempt to examine apologies on the pragmatic
level by taking into account what is commonly apologised for in business settings.
All these different aspects and levels of analysis will be related to the contextual
factors, or situational features. The investigation will not take into account the
phonological level since the nature of the available data does not allow us to do
that. To limit the scope of the investigation, the turns following apologies are not
analysed in greater detail either. This important aspect of the apologizing routine
could be a focus of a separate study.
2. Theoretical preliminaries
The phenomenon of “the ritual organization of social encounters” was pointed to and
discussed at length by Erving Goffman (1967: 45), who argues that human “inter-
action is organized on ritual principles” (ibid.). Conversational rituals or routines
typically involve thanking, apologies, requests, offers and compliment responses.
Apologies, just as some other conversational routines, have been studied rather exten-
sively (see, for example, Owen 1983; Olshtain 1989; Vollmer, Olshtain 1989; Rintell,
Mitchell 1989; Aijmer 1996; Lakoff 2001; Fahey 2005; Deutschmann 2006).
As Goffman (1967) observes, participants of a communicative act aim to main-
tain “ritual equilibrium” in communication, and apologizing is important since
it helps to achieve this aim (Aijmer 1996). Similarly, George Leech observes that
‘apologizing … can be regarded as an acknowledgement of an imbalance in the rela-
tion between s and h, and to some extent, as an attempt to restore the equilibrium’
(1983: 125). Since apologies have the function of restoring or reducing equilibrium,
they are referred to as ‘remedial interchanges’ (Owen 1983).
Apologies are studied from different theoretical and methodological perspec-
tives, such as semantics, speech act theory, sociolinguistic approach (see Aijmer
1996), the interdisciplinary approach of discourse analysis (Lakoff 2001) and
corpus linguistics perspective (Deutschmann 2006). Being a culture-dependent
phenomenon, conversational routines such as apologies are often studied in rela-
tion to cross-cultural variation (e.g. Wierzbicka 1991; Vollmer, Olshtain 1989;
Blum-Kulka, House 1989; Wierzbicka 1991; Wolfston et al. 1989; Fahey 2005). A
number of studies deal with the application of the pragmatics research and more
speciﬁcally such speech acts as apologies to EFL (English as a Foreign Language)
teaching. Such studies explore the importance of metapragmatic instruction on
the speech act comprehension and production of non-native speakers (e.g. Rintell,
Mitchell 1989; Bergman, Kasper 1993; Sbisà 1999; Eslami-Rasekh et al. 2004). Such
studies clearly demonstrate practical applicability of pragmatic investigations of
different speech acts.
Apologies are treated as ritualistic acts since speakers typically apologise in a
relatively ﬁxed way (Aijmer 1996: 80). Karin Aijmer (1996: 82) distinguishes two
major sets of apologizing strategies, i.e. (1) explicit and implicit, (2) emotional and
non-emotional strategies. Implicit apologies differ from the explicit ones as the
former include no direct realization of an apology (e.g. sorry, apologise, excuse).
If an apology is intensiﬁed (e.g. with the intensiﬁer very), it is considered to be
Apologies are of special importance since they imply the speaker’s guilt and
thus are face-threatening (Olshtain 1989; Brown, Levinson 1994; Stenström 1994;
Lakoff 2001). As Lakoff (2001: 201) points out, “apology, more than most speech
acts, places psychological burden both on its maker and, less seriously, on its recipi-
ent”. According to Elite Olshtain (1989: 156), when the speaker decides to apologise,
s/he “is willing to humiliate himself or herself to some extent and to admit to fault
and responsibility for X”. Lakoff (2001) further notes that apologizing beneﬁts the
addressee, not the speakers. Therefore, apologizing is a face-saving act for the hearer
(Olshtain 1989). Apologies are especially ‘threatening’ if the apologiser is a powerful
person; the face loss is more serious then (Lakoff 2001). However, it is important
to note that though apologies are always face-threatening, “not making a necessary
apology may occasion more serious face loss in the long run” (Lakoff 2001: 211).
As some previous investigations suggest, the inﬂuence of context on the use of
apologies is of high importance. However, apologies have not been studied exten-
sively in situational contexts. Speech acts in general should be studied by applying
context-sensitive approaches. Jacob I. Mey (2001: 219) suggests that linguists
should study what he calls situated speech acts since, “[s]peech acts, in order to be
effective have to be situated. That is to say, they both rely on, and actively create,
the situation in which they are realised”. For instance, Joanna Cutting (2000) in
her analysis of casual conversations among students demonstrates that speech acts
in general have a special role in different discourse communities. Similarly, Roberta
Kevelson (1982), who focuses on legal speech acts, argues that speech acts should
be of major concern to linguists in context-sensitive analyses. The importance
of apologies is demonstrated in Brent Poole’s (2001) study of apologies in non-
synchronous computer mediated discourse among people from different cultural
Some previous investigations attempted to take into account the situational
context by using the method of discourse-completion questionnaires (e.g. Olshtain
1989; Wolfson et al. 1989; Vollmer, Olshtain 1989). The drawback of such studies is
that the apologizing behaviour of speakers is not observed in natural situations but
the respondents have to provide probable apologizing forms for different situations
described in the questionnaire. Nevertheless, the results of these studies strongly
suggest that apologies are context-dependent. Besides, as Olshtain’s (1989) research
shows, the form of apologies depends on the speaker’s status, that is, intensiﬁcation
of apologies rises with lower status.
Some previous research demonstrates that an analysis of apologies can yield
very revealing results if this analysis considers situational contexts. For instance,
Kevin Avruch and Zheng Wang (2005) study the importance of apology in the
context of international negotiation between the U.S. and China. Their article
examines the role of apologizing in relation to cultural and linguistic differences in
the course of the negotiation. Aijmer’s (1996) study of the distribution of apologies
over different texts shows that different apologies are restricted to different texts.
For instance, sorry is not found in public speeches, but it prevails in other text
types (sorry is most frequent in conversations). The importance of register, genre
and key is emphasized in Lakoff’s (2001) interdisciplinary model as an important
aspect that has to be taken into consideration in an analysis of apologies.
Social variation in the use of apology formulae is stressed by Lakoff (2001) and
has been studied extensively by Mats Deutschmann (2006), who examined the use
of the most frequent apologies in the spoken part of the British National Corpus.
Social variation was observed in relation to the speaker’s age and their class identity,
which suggests that different apologies are important social markers. However, only
minor differences between different genders were noticed.
Investigations of apologies in business settings, however, are not numer-
ous. Apologies have been studied by David A. Hoffman (1998) in employment
termination cases to show what constitutes an effective apology and what legal
consequences it may have. Hoffman (1998) shows that appropriate apologies are
effective in resolving disputes. How the forms of apologizing are attained by Thai
business people has been examined by Ruja Pholsward (2003). José Camilo Davila
(2004: 1) provides some theoretical considerations concerning the issues related
to apologizing and forgiveness in the context of workplace relationships. In his
study apologies and forgiveness are related to the degree of sincerity and severity
of offence. Davila offers a theoretical model of how to examine three “hypothesized
antecedents of forgiveness”: offence severity, the content of the apology and the
perceived sincerity of the offender’s sincerity.
3. Discussion of the results
The present investigation has revealed that different forms of apologies are
important in three main respects. First of all, apologies differ considerably in their
frequency. There are also some minor differences in their frequency in men’s and
women’s speech. Another important aspect is the usage of apologies, which are
highly formulaic and follow largely predictable patterns. Finally, in relation to
apologies, it is important to take into account what is most commonly apologised
for, since this is one of the important factors that can predetermine the pattern of
3.1. Frequency of diﬀerent forms of apologies
The obtained data have revealed that different forms of apologies differ in their
frequency. These differences are presented in Table 1, which provides not only
general frequency of apologies but also their frequency in relation to gender.
Table 1. Frequency of diﬀerent forms of apologies (per 1 million words)
Table 1 shows that apologies are rather frequent in business communication and
total 1210.86 instances (see also Figure 1). The most noticeable differences can
be observed between the total numbers of different forms of apologies. The data
demonstrate that the most frequent apology is sorry, which occurs 1057.60 times
per million. The other three apologies are considerably less frequent. Excuse me
occurs 74.13 times; pardon occurs 43.1 times; apologise is even less frequent and
occurs in 36.03 instances. Such a drastically higher frequency of sorry, as Figure
1 clearly demonstrates, can be explained by its usage peculiarities. It is the most
neutral form of apologizing and thus it can be used in a much wider variety of
situations. Apologise, being more formal than sorry, is of restricted usage since
it may sound too emphatic. Excuse me is neutral in terms of its formality, but it is
restricted mainly to the situations when the speaker wants to apologise for some-
thing embarrassing or rude that he/she will do. Pardon is mainly used when the
speaker mishears and asks to repeat something.
Figure 1. Distribution of diﬀerent forms of apologies (frequency per 1 million words)
Different usage aspects of different forms of apologies will be further discussed in
Section 3.2, which focuses on discourse functions of these different forms.
As far as gender differences are concerned, very little variation has been
observed in the collected data. Men and women almost do not differ in the
total number of apologies used in business communication (587.22 and 623.64
occurrences respectively). Though men use apologies more frequently, the difference
is too slight to be important. Though we hypothesized that women might be more
apologetic, this hypothesis has not been corroborated. Both men and women act as
professionals in business communication, and their gender seems not to inﬂuence
their verbal behaviour.
However, some differences between men and women do exist. These differences
are related to the preference of certain forms of apologies. Table 1 shows that women
clearly prefer the form apologise (27.67 occurrences), which in men’s speech is
three times less frequent (8.36 occurrences). Meanwhile, the frequency of the most
neutral apology form sorry is higher in men’s speech (547.55 occurrences) than in
women’s speech (510.05 occurrences). Male speakers use pardon almost twice as
frequently as women (28.5 and 14.6 instances respectively). Men also demonstrate
a slight preference for the form excuse me, but the difference in its distribution is
just minor (34.9 occurrences in women’s speech and 39.23 occurrences in men’s
speech). These results suggest that women prefer more formal apologies, whereas
men are more inclined to use less formal forms.
3.2. Main usage patterns of diﬀerent forms of apologies
The investigation has revealed several main usage patterns of apologies. First of all,
in the majority of cases apologies are neutral and occur without any modiﬁcations.
In addition, typically shortened forms prevail. For instance, sorry is preferred to the
full form I’m sorry, pardon is preferred to I beg your pardon (for similar results in
general English, see Aijmer 1996: 91). However, some apologies can be loaded and
thus are either emphatic or tentative. There also occur double apologies, apologies
with self-justiﬁcation and apologies preceded by an interjection or a pause ﬁller.
All these patterns are discussed in greater detail further in the present section.
To indicate the speaker’s gender in each case, abbreviations M for male and F for
female speakers will be used after each example.
3.2.1. Patterns of emphatic apologies
Emphatic apologies are based on the principle ‘maximum sincerity and respect’.
The degree of sincerity and respect is increased by using different linguistic means
of intensiﬁcation, examples of which are provided in (1)–(5).
(1) Er, I must apologise again for what, er the way I addressed you, but of
course with all these women equality er, movements going on, I never know
whether its Mr, Mrs, or Ms. (M)
(2) Alan, Alan I’m sorry to interrupt you, I do apologize. (M)
(3) A a again I am very very sorry. (M)
(4) I’m so sorry. (F)
(5) I’m awfully sorry… (M)
The examples above show that an apology is most commonly preceded by an
intensiﬁer (e.g. very, so, awfully). Another frequent intensifying device is the
auxiliary do preceding the performative verb apologise, as in example (2). Finally,
the performative verb apologise can be preceded by the modal verb must, which
expresses strong obligation, to strengthen the illocutionary force of the apologizing
utterance. In all these cases, the speaker maximally increases the threat to his/her
own positive face, but by doing this, the speaker maximally reduces the threat to
the hearer’s face. Such techniques allow the speaker to preserve the stability of
the relationship. Interestingly, in comparison to tentative apologies, which will be
discussed below, emphatic apologies prevail in the collected data. This tendency
suggests that speakers are more interested in maintaining a stable relationship
and expressing positive attitudes to the interlocutors rather than saving their own
3.2.2. Compound apologies
Compound apologies, as referred to by Aijmer (1996), are closely related to emphatic
apologies since the repetition of an apology strengthens its effect, as in examples
(6) Right, ﬁrst of all I’d like to apologize for the fact that Alan’s report and
my report especially the ﬁrst half, are very similar. I’m sorry about that.
(7) Oh beg your pardon I’m sorry I thought you said internal right. (M)
(8) And also sorry, excuse me like the other points there are you a smoker,
no my wife does, she smokes twenty… (M)
Two apologies can follow one another in the same utterance, as in (7)–(8), or they
can occur in two subsequent utterances, as in (6).
3.2.3. Patterns of tentative apologies
As has already been mentioned, tentative apologies are not as frequent as emphatic
apologies. Tentative apologies contain mitigating devices that lessen the strength
of the apology and make it less sincere, as can be seen in examples (9)–(11).
(9) I should perhaps apologize on behalf of the hotel for the temperature in
the room this morning er I stayed here last night and woke up to ﬁnd that
not only was there no heat in the radiators, but there was no heat in the hot
water. There wasn’t any hot water. They had a major boiler breakdown last
night. Two boilers failed. Er so, so there’s a distinct lack of central heating.
Even more remarkable lack of hot water so (M)
(10) I’d like apologize for the room, it’s er too cold really. (M)
(11) I I feel a bit sorry for for some of the counters because they can see certain
on one palette for instance, I found there were three sorts of bags. (M)
In example (9), the apology is made tentative by means of modality. The utterance
starts with the modal should and the adverb perhaps, both of which express lack of
commitment (cf. I must apologize to see the contrast). In addition, the speaker does
not make a personal apology, but apologises on behalf of the hotel, which allows
the speaker to lessen personal responsibility and also face-threat. In example (10),
the verb apologise is preceded by ‘d like, which weakens the force of the apology
by making it less straightforward. In example (11), the mitigator a bit makes the
apology less forceful. The examples above suggest that tentative apologies are less
sincere than emphatic apologies and are based on the principle ‘minimum face-
threat’ for the apologiser.
3.2.4. Apologies with a self-justiﬁcation
In a great number of instances apologies are followed by a self-justiﬁcation. Such
self-justiﬁcations can be seen as special cases of face-saving and thus can be related
to tentative apologies. Some examples of such extended apologies with self-justifying
arguments are provided in (12)–(14).
(12) I’d like apologise for the room, it’s er too cold really. I booked the
conference not realising it was gonna be the control room by this time,
and then this morning I turned up to ﬁnd out we can’t put the lights on
without getting behind the bar, and we can’t get behind the bar so that’s
why this er (M)
(13) I think what we have to understand, colleagues, is that this report actually is
put to bed, print-wise, well in advance of this Congress. It doesn’t in any way
claim to be an absolutely up to the minute report of absolutely everything
that we’ve done in the previously twelve months since last Congress, and
quite frankly, it just could not be that. So, we do apologize, but hope
you’ll understand er, the delegate particularly, that we just cannot ensure
that the report has got absolutely everything in it. (M)
(14) Erm I’m sorry about yesterday, but I just couldn’t come. (F)
The examples above can be treated as cases of face-repair since the self-justifying
explanations are the speakers’ attempts to shield themselves. The speakers in
examples (12)–(14) do apologise and admit their fault to demonstrate their sincerity,
but simultaneously they disclaim their fault or try to lessen it by referring to some
external circumstances that made their faults inevitable. As can be seen in examples
(13) and (14), self-justiﬁcations are often introduced by the conjunction but (such
constructions are called ‘but-prefaces’ by Baker 1975, as cited in Lakoff 2001). Thus
apologies with a self-justiﬁcation are well-balanced apologies that both express
sincerity and respect to the speaker; they also minimize the face-threat.
3.2.5. Patterns with interjections and pause ﬁllers
In a number of cases the interjection oh precedes the apology sorry, e.g. Oh sorry.
See also example (15), which contains an interjection and a discourse marker in
the utterance initial position.
(15) Oh, well, sorry about that er Marlene. (M)
Sometimes a pause ﬁller precedes an apology:
(16) Erm I’m sorry about yesterday, but I just couldn’t come. (F)
(17) Er let me apologize if the motion appears a little vague. (M)
The use of a pause ﬁller in (16) and (17) allows the speaker to make a delay before
uttering the apology.
Thus the investigation has shown that apologies are highly routinized and
follow a largely predictable pattern. Apologies can have a different degree of force,
depending on which several main types of apologies can be distinguished. First of
all, apologies can be emphatic; in such a case, they primarily express the speaker’s
sincerity. Such apologies contain different intensiﬁers or double apologies. Tentative
apologies, in contrast, are primarily face-oriented and contain different mitigating
devices. Apologies with self-justiﬁcations are a balanced type of apologies since
they both meet the requirement of sincerity and address the speaker’s need for
3.3. What is apologised for in business communication?
Another important aspect to take into account in relation to apologies is the faults
that the speakers apologise for. On the basis of the data, two main reasons for
apologies have been distinguished: (a) apologies for linguistic malfunctioning and
(b) apologies for non-linguistic malfunctioning.
3.3.1. Apologies for linguistic malfunctioning (metalingual uses)
Most frequently apologies are made in cases of linguistic malfunctioning. Since in
such instances the speaker comments on the discourse that is being produced, such
uses of apologies will be called metalingual uses; see, for instance, example (18).
(18) However, the major problem, and you Ma’am have already touched upon
this as well as the Chairman and I’m sorry to be repetitive but we do serve
all yachtsmen, two and a half to three million of them whilst being ﬁnancially
supported by only sixty ﬁve thousand of them. (M)