When we say the wrong thing...repairing the message

The minute the words are said, the regret sets in.

Communication scientists from Case Western Reserve University and Kent State University have studied how and why people choose certain ways to repair the damage done once hurtful words are spoken.

According to Jane R. Meyer from Kent State and Kyra Rothenberg from Case, most people offered an apology, spurred by guilt to mend any offense their remarks might cause in an intimate relationship. Following the offer of an apology, the next popular ways people choose to smooth over the offensive message were to excuse or justify why the words were said. When embarrassed, people tended to avoid the message's receiver instead of making excuses or apologies.

The researchers discuss communication strategies in the article, "Repairing Regretted Messages: Effects of Emotional State, Relationship Type, and Seriousness of Offense," in Communication Research Reports, which sought answers to several questions:

  • Does the seriousness of the regretted message predict a certain response?
  • Is the type of repair strategy linked to the kind of relationship the person has to the message's receiver?
  • How do emotions like guilt, shame, sadness, fright, anxiety or embarrassment affect the choice of response?

The researchers surveyed 204 undergraduates between the ages of 18 and 54 at a Midwestern university, asking them to recall a regretted conversation and write down what happened. The participants rated the seriousness of the offense and characterized their relationship with the person who heard what was said. Participants also checked off the strategies they used to repair the damage.

Meyer and Rothenberg discuss eight strategies people employ to smooth over the discomfort of the situation: an apology or concession, an excuse, a justification, a denial, silence, words to offset the harm, non-verbal reactions (like covering one's mouth after the words are said) and a change of subject.

The researchers also looked at whether the context of the situation--seriousness of the offense, the relationship of the speaker and hearer and the speaker's emotional state--influences which strategy is used.

They found that serious offenses generate apologies, with additional concessions, along with silence, occurring as the severity of the damage increases. An excuse was inadequate for a seriously regretted message, said the researchers.

What actions a person takes also depends upon the relationship--how intimate it is, how much the two people like each other and how much authority the receiver has over the message deliverer. In an intimate relationship, people tend to use justification but not always concessions to mend the mistake.

In addition to the study's publication, early findings from the research were presented in 2004 at a meeting of the Central States Communication Association.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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