The power of a sincere ‘sorry’ should never be underestimated. In the workplace, it can go a long way to smoothing ruffled feathers, is indicative of taking responsibility for mistakes, and can play an important role in mediating disputes.
True remorse is in fact the bedrock of our judicial system, often used as a determining factor in the length of sentencing or deciding if a prisoner has been rehabilitated.
And while women are being encouraged to cut unnecessarily apologetic language from their workplace vocabulary, it can also save you from a world of pain if, as a rambunctious six-year-old, you happen to break the fridge door by swinging on it while in the throes of a Disney-inspired singalong – sorry Mum.
The thing is, how can we tell if someone is actually sorry, or if it’s all crocodile tears?
The internet is littered with lacklustre celebrity apologies of eye-watering insincerity (here’s looking at you Lance Armstrong).
According to a study from Charles Sturt University’s School of Psychology, the “I’s” have it – at least when it comes to written apologies.
Using linguistic analysis, CSU honours graduate Benjamin Moberley and his research supervisor Dr Gina Villar found genuine written statements included significantly greater use of first person singular pronouns – I, me and my – by the writer, compared to false statements.
Make that I’M sorry Mum.
“Remorse is such an intriguing emotion, and it’s one that’s really crucial to understand,” Dr Villar says.
As Dr Villar points out, remorse is chiefly communicated through speech or in writing.
“Remorse is a bit different to other emotions, in that it doesn’t have an obvious facial expression attached to it,” she explains. “Sadness can have tears, anger can have a frown, but remorse is trickier to work out.”
Luckily, language can provide a window into emotions.
“We can actually inadvertently give ourselves away when we’re lying,” Dr Villar says.
“We’re looking for those measurable slip-ups that can provide clues about whether people are lying.”
In their study of 55 English-speaking people, the researchers found a greater use of first person singular pronouns in genuine written statements of remorse reflected previous research, which showed liars tended to use fewer self-references compared to truthful speakers. Contrary to earlier studies, the result was not influenced by the age or gender of the respondents.
For verbal apologies, the idiom of a ‘smooth criminal’ rings true, Dr Villar says.
“Most people do believe that when someone’s lying they’ll use more ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’, but we’ve actually found the opposite – that when people are lying they become quite controlled in their speech,” she says.
“That extra effort is what ultimately gives them away.”
The results from the relatively small study are corroborated elsewhere.
In the paper Lying Words: Predicting Deception From Linguistic Styles, researchers from University of Washington, University of Texas and Southern Methodist University used a computer program to investigate the features of linguistic style that distinguish between true and false stories.
Participants were taken through five different scenarios, and written or transcribed verbal samples were analysed by the program. The text analysis program correctly classified liars and truth-tellers at a rate of 67% when the topic was constant.
The researchers wrote that:
“Deceptive communication was characterised by the use of fewer first-person singular pronouns (e.g., I, me, my), fewer third-person pronouns (e.g., he, she, they), more negative emotion words (e.g., hate, anger, enemy), fewer exclusive words (e.g., but, except, without), and more motion verbs (e.g., walk, move, go)”.
How to tell if someone is lying
While judging remorse may lie in linguistics, body language can be telling if someone is generally being untruthful.
Forbes contributor Carol Kinsey Goman suggests there are a number of dead giveaways that someone is lying.
- A fake smile that doesn’t reach their eyes.
- An unusual response time – either too fast or too slow.
- Verbal cues, such as not using contractions (did not instead of didn’t) and a higher pitch.
- Dilating pupils
- Fidgeting, including jiggling feet and touching their face