Recent research suggests when it comes to letting someone down easy, you should probably keep your apology to yourself.
A study published last month in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that a rejection might hurt a little less if you don’t use the word “sorry.”
Though it sounds counterintuitive, the word may make people on the receiving end feel they’re obligated to forgive you, which in turn may make them feel worse if their feelings don’t match up, according to the study’s authors.
Researchers examined more than 1,000 people as they participated in several social scenarios. First, the volunteers were told to write down what they felt was a good way to reject a hypothetical request. (For example, how would they say “no” to a date or “no” to living with your roommate next year?) Approximately 39% of the participants included an apology in their responses.
After that, the researchers turned the “no” replies on the participants. They asked the volunteers how they felt after they read a rejection letter. Those who had an apology in their letters reported feeling more hurt than those who just simply were rejected.
Another experiment measured how using an apology played a role in people’s behavior following their rejection. The study authors told participants that they were being rejected from a group experiment that involved a hot sauce taste test. Some participants received rejection letters from the group containing an apology for being excluded from the activity, and some got letters without an “I’m sorry.”
The rejected participants were instructed to decide how much hot sauce the group had to taste. They also were told that the group had aversions to spicy food. Those who had an apology in their rejection letter were more likely to act out of “revenge” and give the group more hot sauce, even though they were told the group hated spicy food.
Finally, in the last experiment, researchers tested how rejections with apologies affect forgiveness. Participants were shown videos of rejections as they were happening. Again, some contained contrition while others didn’t. The participants who watched a rejection with an apology were more likely to say they felt obligated to forgive the person saying “no” ― even if that’s not what they wanted to do.
Of course, these outcomes probably can’t be applied to every single situation. There are times that call for a genuine apology. More research needs to be done to look into how the rejecter feels and how this may have an effect on more complex relationships.
That being said, the study does highlight how good intentions can backfire. While an apology may be well-meaning, it can also (perhaps unknowingly) be self-serving, according to study author Gili Freedman.
“If your motivation is to feel better about yourself, maybe you do want to apologize,” Freedman, a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College, told Real Simple. “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.”
Apologies to the word “sorry.” It might be time to start using it less.