04:45pm Wednesday 20 September 2017

Collective apologies: heartfelt or harmful?

by Marketing and Communications

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on screen in Federation Square, Melbourne, apologising to the Stolen Generations in 2008. virginiam/Flickr

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“Collective apologies are made on behalf of one group as a way to rectify and make amends for any wrongdoing against another group,” Associate Professor Wenzel said.

“This might include countries apologising to other countries in the aftermath of war, churches apologising for the mistreatment of children or businesses apologising for damages incurred as a result of their operations, such an oil company apologising for an oil spill,” he said.

“While collective apologies have become very frequent in recent decades, research has shown they’re not as effective as individual apologies because the victim group often has trouble believing the validity of the apology, and therefore the two parties don’t reconcile.”

The characteristics of collective apologies, and what makes them ineffective, will be the focus of a new three-year research project being led by Associate Professor Wenzel.

Funded through a $230,000 grant from the Australian Research Council, the project will look at why collective apologies are often ineffective, and what can be done to overcome the barriers that stand in the way of them being a useful means for mediation and conflict resolution.

“There are a number of reasons why collective apologies don’t necessarily work and we want to explore those dynamics in order to find a better way of going about it,” Associate Professor Wenzel said.

“With collective apologies there’s often one person apologising on behalf of the group which may impact the sincerity of the apology if the victim group believes it doesn’t echo the sentiments of the entire group.

“The other problem with individual apologies made on behalf of a group is that the apologiser might have their own agenda.

“A politician, for example, might be seeking some sort of political advantage so the victim group might not attribute sincerity to what the person’s saying or accept the apology.”

Associate Professor Wenzel said the outcomes of the study could inform diplomats, policymakers and politicians on how to best prepare and deliver meaningful apologies.

“Apologies are almost expected these days whenever there’s wrongdoing between groups so the research will seek to show how collective apologies can be used effectively.

“This will benefit not only the group who is developing the apology but also satisfy the needs of the victim group in receiving an apology that’s perceived to address their concerns, is sincere and therefore effective.”


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