When we’re put in the awkward position of having to turn someone down—for a job, an invitation, or a relationship, for example—we at least want to let them down easily. Now, research suggests one way we can potentially make those rejections sting a little bit less: Don’t apologize.
The study, recently published in Frontiers in Psychology, contradicts pretty much everything we’ve ever been told about manners, communication, and basic human decency. But its authors say that if we really care more about minimizing hurt feelings for the rejectee (and not just for yourself), you may want to skip the requisite “I’m sorry.”
That’s because apologies make people feel obligated to forgive, says lead author Gili Freedman, now a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College. “It puts them in a situation where they feel like they have to respond by saying, ‘Oh, it’s okay,’ even if they don’t feel that way at all,” says Freedman. “When those feelings don’t match up, it can make them feel worse.”
Freedman and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin recruited more than 1,000 people to participate in social experiments while waiting in line at various local festivals. First, the researchers asked participants to write down a “good way of saying no” to a theoretical request, like whether they would like to pair up with a current roommate again the following year. To that question, 39 percent of people included an apology in their response.
But when participants were asked how they would feel if they themselves were rejected, those who were shown a written rejection containing an apology reported feeling more hurt.
In another experiment, they told volunteers that they were being rejected from a set of group tasks, which involved a hot-sauce taste test. Subsequently, the rejectees could decide how much hot sauce the group had to taste, despite being told their rejectors had aversions to spicy food. People who were let down with an apology enacted more revenge on their rejectors than those who got no apology, by allocating more hot sauce to them.
Finally, the researchers asked volunteers to watch a video of a rejection in action. Those who watched a polite rejection, which included an “I’m sorry,” were more likely to say they felt obligated to express forgiveness—despite not actually feeling it—than those who watched a rejection sans apology.
Freedman suspects that we apologize when rejecting other people because we have good intentions and believe it’s the right thing to do. But, she says, it can also be selfish—because it may help us feel better ourselves. She plans to conduct further research examining whether this is the real reason people say they’re sorry during social rejections.
Freedman knows that rejections can be awkward, and it’s often inevitable that feelings will be hurt. “It’s kind of a funny problem to have, and anything you would tell someone is a cliché, like, ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’” she says. “And because it’s such a cliché, a lot of that advice is not going to work.”
She says her research probably doesn’t apply to every interpersonal relationship or every situation of social rejection, and she acknowledges that skipping the “I’m sorry” may have consequences in real life, too. But she recommends choosing your words wisely when you have to break up with a partner or ask an overbearing friend for some personal space—and maybe not letting yourself off so easily just because you did it in a so-called “nice” way.
“If your motivation is to feel better about yourself, maybe you do want to apologize,” Freedman says. “But if you really are concerned about the other person’s feelings, know that offering an apology might not help much—and may make them feel even worse.”
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