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Tea Leaves

In Asia, 'sorry' can be lost in translation

Knowing when and how to apologize is tricky, especially for foreigners

Former Korean Air Lines Vice President Cho Hyun-ah, the central figure in the infamous "nut rage" incident, is transferred to a detention house, in Seoul in December 2014.   © Getty Images

Apologies are a big deal in East Asia, as the Houston Rockets, a U.S. basketball giant, have just discovered.   

The American team faced a tricky task in October after Daryl Morey, the general manager of the franchise, tweeted his support for Hong Kong democracy protesters, triggering a storm of protest in China, a lucrative market for the American basketball industry.

Despite groveling apologies from both Morey and the National Basketball Association, the Rockets quickly lost support from Chinese sponsors and found marketing material removed from major Chinese outlets.  

In Europe and North America, saying "sorry" has traditionally been associated with admitting wrongdoing. But in Asia, that is too simplistic, especially for businesses, as I discovered after arriving from Britain just before 2000. 

"In the West, corporate apologies are all too often transactional and informal, and involve saying whatever is necessary in the short-term to get the public to move on," said Bob Pickard, a public relations expert who has spent years working in the Asia-Pacific region.

"The biggest difference between Eastern and Western corporate apologies is the 'face' dynamic; executives may act differently depending on face calculations, and face often determines the 'cover story' for Asian corporate apologies where blame-laying signals are more difficult to decipher compared to the 'taking responsibility' ethos of Western corporations."

It can be hard, though, to know what kind of apology to offer in the Asian context. In modern South Korea, the traditional apology does not always work when the public feels that powerful figures have got away with too much, as Korean Air Lines found in December 2014 after a scandal that was quickly labeled "nut rage."

Cho Hyun-ah, a daughter of the airline's chairman, Cho Yang-ho, halted a flight from New York that was about to take off, insisting a steward who served her nuts in a bag rather than on a plate be removed from the plane.

A few days later, a tearful Cho faced reporters in Seoul. "I sincerely apologize. I'm sorry," she said, her voice wavering, just hours after her father had bowed before journalists and apologized. "It's my fault," he said. "As chairman and father, I ask for the public's generous forgiveness."

However, even the most heartfelt apologies were only going to go so far in the court of public opinion, angered by reports of Cho Hyun-ah's abusive behavior toward airline staff.

Korean Air employees protested in Seoul, demanding Cho Yang-ho's ouster as chairman, supported by a public that had enough of the rich and famous abusing their positions. His daughter later served five months in prison for obstructing aviation safety. 

Korean Air employees protested again in 2018 after Cho's second daughter was accused of throwing water in an advertising agency official's face. She duly apologized, but was nevertheless suspended by the airline from her marketing job.

The nut rage incident also revived the old-fashioned Korean word "gapjil," signifying abuse of the weak by the powerful, and public outrage was seen again in November 2016 as then-President Park Geun-hye took responsibility for a scandal involving a shadowy confidante that would eventually see her impeached.

"I deeply apologize to the nation for causing this disappointment and distress," an emotional Park said in a televised address. "I blame myself for everything."

Park's apology, her second, was not enough for opponents. "It's doubtful whether this speech will be able to soothe the public anger," said Park Ji-won, then-leader of the opposition People's Party. "Park's position revealed in the speech has paved the way for the president to offer her third apology soon."

Effective apologies require genuine contrition. Contrite or not, though, the attempt must be made. For foreign businesses or organizations that fail to understand this, the consequences can be serious.

The Houston Rockets lost their Chinese sponsors, but the Italian soccer club Juventus upset an entire country when star player Cristiano Ronaldo failed to appear in an exhibition match in Seoul in July.

There followed an exchange of letters between the game's organizers and Juventus that Pickard sees as a perfect example of the clash between different understandings of the apology concept.

"The Italian letter focused on blame-laying and putting it all on the Koreans in an icy-cold and condescending way, and the Korean reply focused on making things right with the fans, with far more feeling and charged emotion, bristling with offense owing to their perception of having been slighted."

There has still been no apology from Juventus, even though the club's reputation in South Korea is unlikely to recover until there's an appropriate expression of regret. "Sorry" may be the hardest word, but it can be even trickier to say it in the right way -- or to understand that it has to be said at all.

John Duerden is a Seoul-based writer.

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