Of the various speech acts used in the wake of COVID-19 and the corresponding need for social distancing, ‘Apologise’ is perhaps the most important.
Since the enforcement of social distancing unavoidably leads to moral uproar, we often find ourselves apologising profusely for trying to safeguard our own health – an interesting paradox that can be triggered by the perceived violation of the moral order of distance keeping.
For the pragmatician, a key question arises: why are some apologies stronger and more efficient than others?
The authors of this blog conducted a recent investigation into the apologetic patterns observed in social distancing, from which it emerged that language users often ‘package’ as an apology what are defined as ‘justify’ and ‘request’ speech acts, as typified by “excuse me, I need to keep my distance.” Here, the speaker actually makes a request and justifies it – thus, in this case, an apology is only symbolic and, according to our research, is unlikely to be efficient.
In the context of social distancing, an apology can be more effective if it is other-oriented, that is, if the apology is centred on the other person’s feelings. For instance, “I am sorry for making you stand there but could we keep some distance?” represents a simultaneous realisation of ‘apologise’ and ‘request’. In this case, according to our research, the apology is more likely to be received positively than the aforementioned “excuse me, I need to keep my distance.”
It would be interesting to investigate the psychological factors behind the negative reception of self-centred ‘apologise’. Our team has been unable to provide a reliable answer to this problem but our hypothesis is that, in the context of social distancing, referring to the other person’s obligations is more powerful than evoking our own rights.
The Research featured in the blog was supported by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Momentum Grant (LP2017/5)