As the wise philosopher Elton John once said: “’sorry’ seems to be the hardest word.”

Actually, like everything in life, culture has a strong influence on the meaning of saying you feel sorry, or asking for an apology. It might come as a surprise, to some, but an apology has quite different connotations in different cultures. To understand the meaning of saying you’re sorry, you need to understand the context: you need to understand the culture.

In individualistic cultures, such as the Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and Scandinavian, apologizing has a much greater weight than in collectivistic cultures such as the Latin American, African and Asian, in general. It’s always dangerous to generalize, but understanding the context is always important, so please bear with me.

In individualistic cultures taking individual responsibility is more valued; therefore, feelings of guilt are more predominant when you feel you have done wrong. In collectivistic cultures, being loyal to your group (or groups) is more important than being accountable to your self; therefore, feelings of shame, rather than guilt, are predominant when you feel you have done wrong.

This means that in individualistic cultures, admitting to yourself and to others that you have done something wrong carries with it enormous feelings of guilt. Because of the nature of individualistic cultures’ value systems, that admission also implies that you cannot blame anyone else, or any extraneous factors, for what you have done. It all rests on you, and you alone. This also means, then, that your self-judgment is extremely important, while in collectivistic cultures it is the judgment of others about you that carries the greater weight.

The corollary is that, generally speaking, people in individualistic cultures tend to hesitate more before asking for an apology (sorry is the hardest word), because if they do, they are condemning themselves to strong guilt feelings. The paradox is that, because of all this, the community at large tends to be more forgiving, once an admission of responsibility is expressed and an apology is asked. In such cultures, the dynamic is: (1) it’s difficult to say you’re sorry; and (2) once you are brave enough to ask for an apology, people tend to forgive you more easily. Perhaps this is because everyone in an individualistic culture realizes how difficult it is to deal with those strong feelings of guilt; perhaps it is also because saying you are sorry reinforces the value that taking individual responsibility is so important.

In collectivistic cultures the dynamic is different: (1) it’s easy to apologize; but (2) people tend to be less forgiving, whether you apologize or not. The important thing is: how will the group think of me, rather than how will I think about myself.

As always, things work fine within the confines of a given culture; the problem starts when we cross cultures.

To people from collectivistic cultures, it seems very odd, and even quite irritating, to see how people in individualistic cultures seem to get away with murder (figuratively speaking), as long as they apologize. Celebrities, politicians and prominent executives may be caught doing awful things; once they issue a public apology, the public (in that culture) seems quite ready to forgive everything… After all, they apologized!

And when they don’t apologize, or show no remorse, public condemnation is more intense. It’s seems almost as if the refusal to say you’re sorry is a bigger crime than whatever it is that you have done wrong.

But, to a collectivistic, an apology means nothing! It is a shame how easily people are forgiven, just because they said “I’m sorry!”

Conversely, it is very annoying to people from individualistic cultures that people accused of wrongdoings in a collectivistic culture often do not apologize. They fail to see that one of the reasons for not apologizing is that, in a collectivistic culture, the apology is not regarded as important, it won’t make any difference… The accused are focusing on how to manage the impression others have of them. And they may not really feel responsible for what happened, since in their culture the context has greater weight than individual responsibility. They are not trying to avoid responsibility (a “mortal sin” to an individualist), they genuinely do not feel responsible. The irony is that, when “others” are the public in an individualistic culture, the situation would be solved more quickly by saying you are sorry… to the amazement of the collectivistic person, who intuitively thinks “it cannot be that simple! Besides, it wasn’t really my fault, so why should I apologize, when it was not I who brought this about?”

Which is more painful, feeling guilt or feeling shame? That’s easy to answer: it depends on the culture!

In individualistic cultures, shame is more easily brushed aside. “Who cares what other people think? It’s my own opinion of myself that matters the most!” Guilt is more painful than shame.

In collectivistic cultures, guilt is more easily brushed aside. “It wasn’t really my fault, someone else (or something else) is to blame!” Shame is more painful than guilt.

And if you, who are reading this, do not agree, I have one last thing to say: (1) if you are from an individualistic culture, please accept my apology, I meant no harm; (2) if you are from a collectivistic culture, don’t blame me, blame the research that has been published about culture differences!