Yesterday, I taught my case on BP and the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill here in Tokyo. We had a very interesting discussion regarding BP's actions both before the accident and in the immediate aftermath. Some Japanese executives felt that BP CEO Tony Hayward should have put forth a clearer, more direct apology immediately. Others were not so sure, pointing out that the US is a highly litigious society.
I brought up a study by Insead's William Maddux which he conducted along with Tetsushi Okumura of Japan's Nagoya City University as well as USC's Peter Kim and Northwestern's Jeanne Brett. They have studied the meaning and function of apologies across cultures. They found a difference between what they call "individual-agency cultures" such as the US and "collective" cultures such as Japan. In the US, an apology means that one is taking the blame for a failure. On the other hand, in Japan, apologies are "general expressions of remorse rather than a means to assign culpability." Perhaps because of this difference in meaning, they found that the Japanese tend to apologize more often, even if they were not at fault for particular actions. The findings definitely resonated with the Japanese executives with whom I discussed the BP case yesterday. They acknowledged that apologies do take on a different meaning in their country. As executives work and do business in different countries, they would be well-served to understand these key differences.