Posted : 2008-01-21 17:16
Updated : 2008-01-21 17:16

Saying Sorry Across Cultures

By Jason Lim

A Korean friend of mine recently passed the NJ driver's license test. Like many other Koreans in the greater New York region, she had paid a Korean driving school to guide her through the process.

My friend told me that the very first piece of instruction she received, even before being taught where the mirrors and signals were located, was that she should never say sorry in case of an accident.

``What does that mean?'' I asked, confused that a driving school would consider this so important.

``It means,'' she replied, ``that you should never say sorry in an accident, regardless of whose fault it is, because that would be admitting legal liability and will put you in a weak position in case it has to go to court.''

At the time, I was vexed because I couldn't really rebut her. It is true that the United States is an overly litigious society. My mechanical engineering professor at Duke told us an instructive story of a lost horse accidentally falling off a cliff and landing on top of a Ford pickup truck that was passing underneath, killing the driver.

Of course, the surviving family of the truck driver sued Ford for not foreseeing such a possibility and building the truck accordingly.

Although the American culture of litigation is sometimes useful in checking abuses of corporate greed or official power, it does produce certain behavior patterns in the American people that might not translate well in other culture.

This is what happened on June 13, 2002. On that day, a U.S. armored vehicle struck and killed two South Korean 14-year old girls, Hyo-sun and Mi-sun in Euijeongbu City.

By all accounts, there was no question that it was tragic accident. The two American soldiers and USFK accepted responsibility for the accident and agreed to pay compensation to the families of the girls.

And yet, this accident galvanized the anti-American sentiments in Korea. It resulted in hundreds of thousands of people gathering in mass public protests.

Around 50 protesters even broke into an American base and threw pipe bombs. Ultimately, Roh Moo-hyun strategically harnessed this anti-American energy to come from behind and win the presidency.

The tragic but accidental deaths of the two girls impacting the presidential race of a nation of 50 million? How did this happen?

It wasn't because the United States didn't apologize. High-ranking U.S. officials apologized many times over the incident. They even erected a memorial to the girls' memory on the spot that they were killed.

It happened because the United States and Korea have different ways of saying sorry.

``Koreans wanted to hear Americans say that they were truly sorry in both words and actions,'' says Sooyee Choi, a cross-cultural communications expert who works in the Asia Program office in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

``They wanted to feel a human reaction to the tragedy. But what they heard was a carefully worded apology calculated to avoid legal responsibility. The Koreans wanted pathos, but all they got from the Americans was logos.''

Americans have learned to express sorrow in ways that do not expose them to legal liability. This is their first reaction to any incident. It does not mean that Americans are not sorry. It certainly does not mean that Americans are trying to avoid blame for their own faults.

But it does mean that Americans can't afford to undermine their own legal position or incriminate themselves, ``just in case.'' Unfortunately, ``just in case'' actually happens quite often in America.

But to Asians, legal wrangling comes later. In an accident, they want to sense a human connection with the other person, regardless of fault. They want an emotional connection to the tragedy first and foremost. This is where misunderstanding comes from.

This is not unique to Korea. According to Choi, the United States recently had problems with other major Asian countries because of its way of saying sorry.

For example, China became angry over America's stingy expression of ``sorry'' over the Hainan U.S. Navy spy plane incident in 2001 and held the 24 American fliers for 11 days until it was satisfied with the wording of the American apology.

Japan also had issues with the American way of saying sorry when an American submarine accidentally crashed into a Japanese fishing vessel and killed several people, including students.

Ultimately, the lesson in the case of Hyo-sun and Mi-sun is not that there are cultural differences that could lead to temporary misunderstandings. This is inevitable and can be overcome through an understanding attitude among reasonable people.

The real lesson is that, unfortunately, such misunderstandings are often misused by certain politicians and media to drive their own agenda. It then becomes a wedge that creates a self-destructive attitude of ``Us vs. Them" that's good for neither them nor us in the long run.

Jason Lim is a research fellow at the Harvard Korea Institute, researching Asian leadership models. He can be reached at
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