Sorry seems to be the hardest word …

Whether intentional or not, people have the great potential to hurt one another. The solution to this is simple, but still not quite easy. What drew me to restorative justice was that apology takes centre stage in RJ debates. One of the questions put to my study participants concerned the issue of apology and whether it matters when dealing with offenders. Although participants’ opinions on the importance of apology varied widely in my doctoral research, overall the practice of apologising did not lie at the heart of their views. Making an apology was frequently seen as ‘just’ an act or etiquette to follow, especially if it is within a court setting – where the expression of apology is limited and frequently managed by lawyers.

Apologies, remorse. No this is just etiquette. That’s what I think, he showed remorse, no remorse – perhaps it works in a way. Today I have seen a case of a Polish couple, who beat their child in England, they didn’t show any remorse. It’s not only that it’s a very serious crime but not showing remorse is like the last nail in their coffin in this case. So probably yes, it’s important though.


The perception of apology through the court lenses might limit the importance of apology within other (restorative) settings among lay people. This observation also resonates with Gruber’s (2014) point made in I’m Sorry for What I Have Done where research findings suggested that apology serve as a ritualised formula that can influence the defendant’s sentence. The fact that offenders’ apologies are viewed with scepticism is also reflected in the evaluation of restorative justice practices in England and Wales (see Shapland et al. 2006) where the authors argued that apology in serious cases or with adult offenders should become a more complex and evidenced act addressed to several audiences. Therefore, Shapland et al. (2006:514) encourage to differentiate court- and ‘other’ settings-based apology and argue that: ‘in restorative justice situated within criminal justice system there are at least two audiences for these apologies, so apologies are an even more complex task, needing to reach out in two directions, to the victim and to the court/society’.

Apology is also culturally constructed and some of my participants suggested that the limited confidence in apology stems from the fact that Polish people just do not know how to apologise:

We don’t know how to apologise, but perhaps we don’t know how to forgive so this would be, because I suspect that if one was to apologise this had to be in someone’s presence. Whether there is a probation officer or someone else who is supervising this person who committed the offence, as a proof. So I think … that these apologies that people say it, this wouldn’t be natural because this person has to apologize and the other has to say ok. How do I forgive you? … go and sin no more[2]. [Laugh] so I don’t know.


A similar remark was made by one of the mediators, however in his narrative lack of support for apology is contextualised against difficult Polish history, socio-economic changes as well as the pressures of globalization:

Taking into account our past 300 years, it’s difficult to say whether Poles know how to reconcile, at least we have been trying to have a culture of reconciliation based on norms and standards, that we, and them, can be in control of or influence it at the very least. And do we know how to reconcile? It seems to be that yes. But simple ’sorry’ seems to be the hardest word to say. For starters, it’s so obvious in mediation (…) we have to start talking to one another at home. Well the economy, society is developing, we have to keep up with the rest of the world, and without changes in our thinking or attitude this won’t be possible. Someone else will outdo us again. We will be like with the quality of road infrastructure rankings, just behind Chad and other African countries. It’s like with the culture of family life. It is different in Germany, different in France, and in England it is different. In every single country it will be different. And in Poland it is different. It’s the same if let’s say we go to Belarus to find people who want to be mediators and expect to see hands in the air.

[Mediator 3/I]

At this point it is worth recalling the observation made by Shapland et al. (2006:507) that ‘restorative justice is not a ready-made package of roles, actions and outcomes, and although in the light of the restorative justice literature the restorative encounter can be seen as ritualistic, these rituals do vary across societies.

Last but surely not least, the unimportance of apology in the Polish context can be illustrated as an inter-cultural component of cross-linguistic analyses. For example, in research on speech acts Anna Wierzbicka, a Polish linguist, demonstrated that Polish linguistic norms prefer directness, and this is deeply embedded in the Polish culture, compared to English norms. The next quotation illustrates that people might prefer actions rather than emotional or symbolic gestures when it comes to the act of apology:

We could give it a try. And what kind of result it would bring who knows, I seriously don’t know, because it can be the same like with these apologies (…) as you see [Laugh] I am not good with these wordy things, I prefer actions.


Wierzbicka has observed that English speakers tend to think that the concepts of anger, fear, or contempt are universal categories. However, every culture has its own ‘cultural linguistic scripts’ which suggest to people how to express their feelings and how to think about other people’s feelings.  For that reason, Wierzbicka has emphasised that the classification of emotions depends largely on the language through the prism of which these emotions are interpreted, and argued that emotions should also be studied cross-culturally. In contrast to the English language, in Polish there is a greater use of ‘straightforward’ and ‘confrontational’ expressions, as Poles expect people to be direct with emotions, views and reactions. The Polish ‘cultural linguistic’ script reflects a tendency to spontaneous emotional expression, without trying to analyse, shape or suppress them. Whereas in English there are many common speech routines that encourage the demonstration of ‘positive emotions’, even if displayed ‘artificially’. The significance of this finding is that the bulk of restorative justice research was carried out in contexts where people speak English as a native language, and the English language might not have equivalents in other languages (cultures). Wierzbicka has pointed to the fact that Anglo-cultural scripts encourage people to be careful, considerate, and thoughtful to avoid hurting other people’s feelings as the focus is on the feelings of the other person. On the other hand Polish cultural scripts have no equivalents, and the focus is not on the feelings of the addressee but on those of the speaker. I find this part of my research the most fascinating and I strongly believe that participants’ ambivalent view of apology and Wierzbicka’s research in particular shows that linguistics might in the future contribute to the cross-disciplinary study of emotions, and restorative justice in particular.



Gruber, M.C. (2014) I’m Sorry for What I Have Done. The Language of Courtroom Apologies. Oxford University Press.

Shapland, J., Atkinson, A., Atkinson, H., Chapman, B., Colledge, E., Dignan, J., Howes, M., Johnstone, J., Robinson, G. and Sorsby, A. (2006) Situating restorative justice within criminal justice. Theoretical Criminology, 10, 505-532.

Wierzbicka, A. (1985) Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: The Semantics of Human Interaction. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Wierzbicka, A. (1999) Emotions across Languages and Cultures. Diversity and Universals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] These are the words from the Bible when a woman caught and charged with adultery was brought to Jesus. The crowd wanted her to be stoned to death. Then Jesus said to the crowd: “go ahead… but let the person without sin throw the first stone.” When the crowd resigned and walked away he said to the woman:  “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8: 3-11).

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