It's a rainy winter's day and you're waiting for a train on an open platform. The sky is gray and the raindrops cold. Your train is about eight minutes away. Then a stranger walks up to you and says, "I'm sorry for the rain!" and stops for a beat, "May I use your phone?"
What do you do? Do you give it to him?
Another case: same rain, same platform, same tardy train. Same stranger walks up to you and says, "Hey, how are you? Can I borrow your phone?"
What do you do?
While the difference may seem innocuous, joint research from the Harvard Business School and the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the former approach—leading with an apology for something out of your control—is much more likely to lead to acts of trust, like a lent phone.
Over four experiments, the researchers found that people are more likely to trust those who make a superfluous apology.
"Even in the absence of culpability, individuals can increase trust by saying ‘I’m sorry’—even when they are merely ‘sorry’ about the rain," they wrote in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
The most vivid of the experiments gave us the scene above: the researchers asked an actor (who didn't know about the experiment) to approach 65 strangers at a large train station in the Northeast. He asked to borrow their phone: half the time he said, "I’m so sorry about the rain! Can I borrow your cell phone?" and the other half he asked directly, skipping the apologies.
The result? 47% of the people who heard the superfluous apology lent their phones—what the researchers saw as a sign as trust—while only 9% of the second group gave up their phones.
The actor clearly had no control over the rain—but people were more sympathetic to him if he apologized.
Why's this so effective in communication? The unsolicited, superfluous apology builds empathy, arguably the most powerful leadership tool. As the researchers observe:
By issuing a superfluous apology, the apologizer communicates that he has taken the victim's perspective, acknowledges adversity, and expresses regret.
Hat tip: BPS Research Digest