A Korean proverb says, ‘‘Even one word makes you free of debt,’’ and a Western proverb says, ‘‘Mind your Ps(pleases) and Qs(thank you expressions).’’ Both proverbs emphasize the importance of appropriate speech acts in our daily lives. A speech act is defined as a minimal unit of communication message that is transferable from language to language. “Sorry” and “thank you” are two most popular examples of polite speech acts.
In general, expressions of apology and thanks exist across cultures; however, their uses differ from culture to culture. Even when one knows how to say these in another language, if one does not know when or to whom they should be said, the speaker may seem impolite or bizarre. Understanding these differences is useful for effective intercultural communication.
Although various types of relationships between speakers and hearers and various interactional contexts are possible factors that may change this, Koreans are generally more likely to favor apologies while Americans are more likely to favor thanks. Korea is culturally one of the most apologetic countries in the world, and empirical studies have confirmed the importance of apologies in many situations in Korea including daily conversation and judicial proceedings. In contrast, Americans use thanks more frequently and explicitly than Koreans. Americans tend to verbalize their gratitude more than Koreans do, and furthermore, Koreans prefer implicit and nonverbal expressions of gratitude.
Two distinct objectives of apologies and thanks are to express regret and gratitude, respectively, but both are also a gracious way of seeking favors. Apologizing and thanking are strategies used to reduce the threats associated with favor-seeking. Apologies and thanks are persuasive elements in favor-seeking messages because they minimize impressions of presumptuousness, create politeness, and ultimately lead to a greater likelihood of the hearer’s compliance. Research shows that apologies and thanks in favor-seeking messages are frequently more effective in Korea and the United States, respectively.
Even when favor-seeking messages with an apology or thanks did not create positive responses, they did not decrease them compared to favor-seeking messages with no apology or thanks. Adding apology and/or thanks in a favor-seeking message can increase or at least does not hurt positive responses. Further, utilizing apologies and/or thanks often reduced the face threats associated with favor seeking in various situations. Therefore, when seeking a favor, it is desirable to include apologies in Korea and thanks in the U.S.
When speaking English as a second language, Koreans have a tendency to apologize as they would when speaking Korean. Yet, excessive usage of polite language might sound phony or lacking in sincerity. Because over-apologizing makes Americans uncomfortable, this tendency may not lead to the expected positive outcome in interactions with Americans. That is, saying “I am very sorry for asking this, but could we reschedule our meeting for later this week?” would be more appropriate and effective in Korea than “Could we reschedule out meeting for later this week? I would really appreciate this,” which would be a more effective favor-seeking message in the U.S.
Associate Professor Lee Hye-eun earned her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Communication from Michigan State University. She was a tenured associate professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa before joining Ewha Womans University.