Duì bu qĭ seems to be the hardest word

Forms of apology may exist within all cultures but not perhaps with the same meanings. This paper aims to explore some of the orthodoxies surrounding Chinese cultural norms and how they impact concepts of apology and forgiveness. Are the orthodox beliefs about culture consistent with the manner in which apology is experienced by Chinese people?

Apologies are described as “speech acts”: Through which an individual splits himself into two parts, the part that is guilty of an offense and the part that disassociates itself from the delict and affirms a belief in the offended rule.[1]

Whilst this is an apt description of an apology where the offender accepts that he has breached a social norm and accepted responsibility, there are other types of apology. For example, it is possible for an apology to acknowledge that the victim is offended or to empathise with the victim without acknowledging responsibility, alternatively an apology can also be based on the need for social harmony without any expression of remorse.[2]  All of these can be valid in specific circumstances and it is important to acknowledge the wide array of possible apology formulas, which are available to an offender. Within Putonghua there are six levels of apology, which represent the subtlety of expressing an informal sorry (duì bu qĭ)[3]; an expression of regret (bào qiàn); apologizing whilst accepting responsibility (péi li), up to apologizing with full admission of error and requesting punishment (qĭng zui).[4]

Since Hofstede’s work, it has been widely accepted that Chinese culture as exemplified by citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is collectivistic in nature[5] i.e. the needs of society are more important than those of the individual, and that this preference is based on Confucian and Buddhist principles.[6]  These beliefs include a high regard for qualities such as benevolence, tolerance and kindness in connection with forgiveness.[7]  As a collective society, individuals consider themselves to be part of one or more closely linked groups (e.g. family, co-workers, etc.) and they are “willing to give priority to the goals of these collectives over their own personal goals.”[8]  Lazare comments that within Chinese culture “reestablishing social harmony is often the major function of apologies” thus perhaps suggesting that within more individualistic societies apologies are driven more by internal reasons e.g. guilt.[9]


[1] Erving Goffman, Relations in public: microstudies of the public order, 113 (1st 1971)[2] Professor Peter Robinson, Fall Semester Lectures, Straus Institute, Pepperdine University, 2011.
[3] Duì bu qĭ (informal) Putonghua for sorry. With apologies to Sir Elton John for the title.
[4] Hang Zhang, Culture and apology: The Hainan Island incident, Vol. 20 No. 3 World Englishes 383, 384 (2001).
[5] Geert Hofstede, Culture’s Consequences, 225 (2d ed. 2001).
[6] Hong Fu et al., Personality correlates of the disposition towards interpersonal forgiveness: a Chinese perspective, Vol. 39 No. 4 International Journal of Psychology 305, 307 (Aug. 2008).
[7] Id. at 313.
[8] John G. Oetzel et al., Face concerns in interpersonal conflict: a cross-cultural empirical test of the face negotiation theory, Volume 30 Communication Research 599, 602 (Dec. 2003).
[9] Aaron Lazare, On Apology, 158 (1st ed. 2005).

by Sala Sihombing


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Sala Sihombing
Sala Sihombing originally qualified as a solicitor in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. After 14 years in banking, she has shifted gears, recently completing a Masters in Law from the Straus Institute at the Pepperdine University School of Law. Visit: www.conflictchange.com

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