I look out across the faces, half Western, half Asian. I am giving my standard workshop on effective apology, and I feel proud that I’m connecting with life in Vietnam. Almost everyone in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) gets around on motorbikes.
A young Vietnamese woman takes a shot at constructing an apology. I can see this is a stretch for her. Her eyes are averted and her voice can barely be heard:
Umm, I am sorry for crashing your motorbike. It was my fault and I’m humbly sorry for my carelessness. I promise I won’t do it again.
I look around the room. Many of the Vietnamese people in the room appear to be satisfied with this apology. The Westerners want something more.
“What good is an apology if my motorbike is gone?” says a man with an Australian accent. I later learn he’s in Vietnam to scout locations for a restaurant.
Of course. No apology is complete without restitution, the action step of restoring the relationship to the condition it was in before the offense and a signal of how much the apologizer values the relationship. The Australian perfects the apology by adding,
“I will replace your motorbike. And even though it was a few years old, because of how much I value your friendship and how much inconvenience I caused you, I will buy you a brand new motorbike.”
So far, so good. Restitution is obvious when it’s a matter of replacing an object with a known value.
But what about an offense that the payment of money can’t address. I go to the next example in my standard presentation . . .
Let’s say your best friend steals your boyfriend and your friend feels bad about what she did. What apology can the friend offer so that you can feel okay about continuing the friendship?
. . . and that’s when I’m left speechless. Based on offering this example in dozens of presentations, I believe only one restitution step has a possibility of salvaging the friendship after such a betrayal. Go ahead. Take a second to think about what it is. I’ll reveal the step at the end of this post.
Every group I’ve presented to eventually settles on this restitution step. But that’s been with Westerners. What Lotus, a Vietnamese woman in her mid-30s, says floors me:
I wouldn’t need an apology because there is no betrayal. I love my friend and I love my boyfriend. If they are happy together, I am happy.
No betrayal? I never heard such a response before and I’ve presented this example dozens of times. Clearly I am operating in a different frame of reference.
Only later do I begin to understand what’s happening. I’m in Vietnam, a country with Asian sensibilities. The main point is that in Asia the need to avoid confrontation frequently trumps the need for apology.
Vietnamese society is organized to avoid confrontation. The overriding impulse is to maintain harmony, preserve relationships, and avoid loss of face. One way to do that is by publicly framing events like the one I posed as benign so as to avoid confrontations where the situation might escalate and someone would lose dignity.
Saving face is the goal. It’s impossible to define the concept, but this is close.
The term face is the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self, delineated in terms of approved social attributes.
Lotus may well continue her friendship as if nothing happened. The ripples on the surface do not become waves. In many cases, the resentment is real and the anger will be revealed at some other point. The point is that apology, like every other social dynamic, is determined by culture.
The Restitution Step , Please
As for the restitution step that might—just might—save the relationship where Veronica steals Archie, Betty’s boyfriend, it goes something like this:
Veronica: Betty, it was not okay for me to undermine your relationship with Archie for my own advantage. I value our friendship and hope to prove to you that I can be trusted. Until you can trust me again, I have terminated my relationship with Archie. I will not be in contact with him again. I don’t know any other way I can demonstrate that my friendship with you is more important.