Getting a fix on the differences between apologies in Japan, U.S.

A little while ago I found an envelope in my mailbox. Attached to it was a message from the post office that said in Japanese, “This piece of mail arrived from another country at the postal authority with the surface damp. We are sorry but it was not possible to confirm what happened. We have dried it as much as possible, but we deeply apologize for sending your important mail in this condition.” The envelope was indeed dry in the crinkly sort of way that occurs after being wet, but there was little real damage.

I was struck by the extremely solicitous tone of the note and by the double apology, first for not finding out how it got wet in another country and secondly for being unable to restore the envelope to its pre-moistened condition. Of course, this was a prepared label affixed to all mail damaged by moisture, not an apology written specifically for me, but I nonetheless was impressed by the consideration that had led the postal service to create such a label in the first place. For something that was not even its own fault!

It may be that this sort of communication is a preemptive move to stave off complaints from recipients of damaged mail, but it seemed to be yet another example of the rather careful care extended to customers that is so common in Japan. It reminded me of the way clerks often say, “Excuse me” (shitsurei shimashita) if they ask if I have a point card for their store when I’m buying something, and I tell them no. It’s a small apology for … being so presumptuous as to suppose I might have a point card? Surely it is nice of them to ask, as if I did have a card, the helpful reminder would enable me to take advantage of the points. Sometimes indeed I do have the point card and have forgotten to pull it out of my wallet or find it on my smartphone. To my way of thinking, there’s no need to apologize for asking a potentially helpful question.

I searched online to see if anyone else had received the same message from the post office and felt compelled to post something about it. There was one hit, a blogger who mentioned the wet-envelope apology and then went on to comment that the contents were a Christmas card, delivered a month and a half late. This led him to facetiously speculate that it had taken the post office that long to dry it out.

The blogger’s take on the notification was different from my own, but my usual hunt for relevant research revealed an interesting study of apologies that seems to shed some light on cultural differences that might lead to the production of such an effusive apology sticker. Cross-cultural discourse analysts Phillip Morrow and Kenta Yamanouchi made a study of online apologies to hotel guests in English and Japanese who had given bad ratings of only one or two stars, reflecting “terrible” or “poor” evaluations on TripAdvisor. They looked at ratings of hotels in 10 major cities in the U.S. and Japan, looking at the first 10 hotels mentioned on the TripAdvisor website for each city and then collecting the first review of one or two stars for each hotel that included a response from the hotel, creating a data set of 100 reviews each for the U.S. and Japan.

The responses were coded in terms of the following moves: openings, thanks, apologies, explanations, repairs, further contact, invitations, closings, and other content. There was much that was similar in the English and Japanese apologies. The average number of moves in each data set was 5.3. Thanking was the most common move in the data from both cultures, accounting for 21% of the English moves and 28% of those of the Japanese hotels. The frequency of apologies was virtually the same, with a frequency of 20% among the U.S. responses and 21% for Japan.

The biggest discrepancy in move frequency related to repairs. In both countries repairs typically related to mentioning that the hotel would address the problem. While this move made up 9% of the American hotels’ moves, it amounted to 22% of the Japanese hotels’ moves. In addition, the repairs in English were mostly boilerplate, like “We will look into it and make sure to see areas where we can improve” while the Japanese repair statements often went into more detail: “Regarding this matter, we will review the system for cleaning as soon as possible, thoroughly train staff members, and try to prevent a recurrence.”

Perhaps in part because of this kind of specificity, another difference the researchers observed concerned the length of the responses. Given orthographical differences, a direct comparison of length was not possible, but Morrow and Yamanouchi note that 59% of the Japanese responses were longer than the original reviews, and 21% were more than twice as long. On the other hand, 63% of the English responses were shorter than the reviews, and 29% were less than half their length. The researcher additionally examined the use of intensifiers in the apologies, like “sincerely” and found that they were employed in 68% of the Japanese apologies but only in 40% of the U.S. ones.

To be honest, the “important mail” I received that day was a routine notification, although the post office would not have known that. I was nevertheless happy to have it delivered dry rather than soggy, and the affixed, rather lengthy and specific, apology, with its emphasis on repair and use of intensifiers, made even this humdrum communication feel a bit special.


Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.