When saying ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘thank you’ makes a big difference

Alice G. Walton | Sep 26, 2019

Faux apologies can be irksome, and not receiving an apology at all can feel like a slight. 

Small exchanges between people matter a lot, suggests research by Chicago Booth’s Shereen Chaudhry and Carnegie Mellon’s George Loewenstein. They propose that thanking and apologizing involve costs and benefits, and working from this framework, they uncover a host of predictable patterns in conversation that people engage in to help maintain social cohesion. 

In the study, the researchers connect four sentiments—thanking, apologizing, bragging, and blaming—that were previously considered distinct. Chaudhry and Loewenstein argue that these four sentiments involve trade-offs between conveying warmth and competence. 

For instance, thanking and apologizing both project warmth and thoughtfulness on the part of a speaker, but simultaneously hint at weakness or incompetence. Blaming and bragging make a speaker appear more competent, but at the risk of appearing less warm. These effects are different from the point of view of a receiver: receiving a thank you or an apology makes a receiver seem both competent and warm. 

The researchers’ theory predicts how people will converse about credit and blame, predicting, for example, that both people in an exchange would prefer a thank you over a brag. People engage in subtle coordination in conversations to help bring about thanking rather than bragging, the theory suggests. 

Chaudhry and Loewenstein had pairs of strangers complete an online math game, in which the results of the higher scorer determined the earnings of both players. The researchers rigged the game so that one player’s version was much easier, leading to a higher score. After they were done, some of the pairs were given the opportunity to chat for a couple of minutes, during which the researchers looked for various types of communication between them. 

Most chats—almost 70 percent—involved thanking, while bragging showed up in less than 15 percent of the conversations. So how did the participants coordinate to bring this about? The researchers observed that when a thank you wasn’t immediately offered, the person who wanted to hear it would often subtly prompt the partner to offer one. This may be a method of keeping things pleasant, but still eliciting a thank you where one is due. 

Interestingly, there were consequences to this: pairs that were allowed to chat, versus those that weren’t given the opportunity, were more likely to want to work together in a follow-up task—likely because thanks was expressed. For the low-performing partner, exhibiting warmth helped compensate for what they appeared to lack in competence. 

Chaudhry says that the findings imply workplaces would do well to encourage positive communication around credit and blame. “Whether people express gratitude can really influence how people feel being on teams, and whom they choose to work with. Often it just comes down to who’s most likeable.” 

The theory also helps explain why women tend to apologize more than men, a finding of University of Pittsburgh’s Karina Schumann and University of Waterloo’s Michael Ross. It is generally understood, on the basis of societal expectations, that women should appear warmer, says Chaudhry. “Apologizing may include a cost to one’s competence, but apologizing makes you look warmer. So apologizing may have more benefit for women than men—but not apologizing may have more cost. The opposite is true for men.”