Discussion Forum: The Power of e-Apology in Online Contexts

Discussion Forum: The Power of e-Apology in Online Contexts

The dispute resolution literature has revealed the significance of apologies in various contexts, ranging from individual apologies to ones initiated by corporate and governmental entities. These apologies have been made with respect to a wide range of disputes, including commercial grievances, and instances of malpractice and discrimination. In these various settings, the presence of apologies has been correlated with positive outcomes, satisfaction levels and perception of fairness. As use of online dispute resolution increases, the question arises as to the impact an apology transmitted online could have on ODR processes and outcomes. We have been engaged in research on this topic in the past year and are looking forward to exchanging views with others on this topic.


We would like to begin the conversation this week with the following question: 

With advancements in technology, the spread of smartphones and availability of multimedia and social media, people regularly use digital communication to transmit both intimate and mundane messages. Under these conditions, should we expect to find any differences between apologies given offline and online? 

Presenter Bios:

Dr. Leah Wing

Co-director, National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution and Senior Lecturer, Legal Studies Program, Department of Political Science, U. of Massachusetts/Amherst, USA.
Leah has taught dispute resolution since 1993 and her present research projects focus on the power of apologies in e-commerce online dispute resolution, crowdsourcing and spatial justice, and technological responses to digital harm doing. She recently completed collaborative research on three National Science Foundation funded projects on online dispute resolution. She serves on the editorial boards of the International Journal of Online Dispute Resolution and Conflict Resolution Quarterly, and has served two terms on the Association of Conflict Resolution Board of Directors. Since being certified as a mediator in 1983, Leah has provided mediation and training consultation to a wide variety of organizations and institutions, specializing in the relationship between power, identity, and conflict transformation. She is the founding director of the Social Justice Mediation Institute.

Orna Rabinovich-Einy

University of Haifa, Faculty of Law

Orna Rabinovich-Einy is a senior lecturer (with tenure) at the Faculty of Law at the University of Haifa. Her areas of expertise are alternative dispute resolution (ADR), online dispute resolution (ODR), and civil procedure, with research focusing on the relationship between formal and informal justice systems, dispute resolution system design and the impact of technology on dispute resolution. Rabinovich-Einy is a fellow of the Haifa Forum of Law and Society, the Haifa Center for Law and Technology, and the Center for Information Technology and Dispute Resolution at UMass, Amherst. Rabinovich-Einy holds a doctorate in Law (J.S.D.) degree from Columbia University. She was admitted to the Bar in Israel (1998) and in New York (2001), and was certified as a mediator in New York by the Safe Horizon Mediation Center (2003).


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I haven't studied this, but it would seem to me that apologies in a commercial context and apologies in a personal context would be quite different.  I don't have any real data, but it seems that e-commerce apologies have increased in number, and perhaps declined in meaning.  I wonder if the ability to say, "I'm sorry" via text while not having to face the person against whom one has trespassed makes it more likely for an apology to be offered?

On the one hand, it might be easier to offer an apology where you do not face the other side, copy paste a pre-used formula. On the other hand, the digital trail that comes with online communication might actually have a deterring effect on those expected to make an apology (and make such apology more meaningful for their receipients?)

Good point - if litigation or other follow on activity were in the works, you would be creating a trail by apologizing online.

I wonder whether the written medium changes the emphasis to actual words used - how significant is it for people to actually see the word "apology" or is it enough that someone acknowledges their pain and takes responsibility? what can we learn from other online interactions in this respect?

Great question.  Apologies given online enable the apologizer to script their response to a much greater extent than would be possible offline; that can hinder the authenticity of it, perhaps, but it could also lead to a more well-thought-out apology.  Online apologies, of course, lose some of the meaning of an offline apology, since in the absence of video, one's facial expression, hand gestures, and other nonverbal communication are not visible.  At the same time, it casts a sharper focus on the words of the apology, which are often key and most important to the listener.

Hello All! Great to be back for another Cyberweek!

This question is very interesting. I really like what Orna said before, that apologies are easier when they are not face to face. I remember as a child, when I would do something wrong, and my parents asked me to apologize, i would stare at the floor and say "m sorry" very meekly. But my parents always insisted that I look them in the eye and apologize. Looking at them face to face made the apology a lot stronger. 

Online apologies I think are a bit less personal and meaningful right now. I feel that in the online setting, people have a lot more time to prepare and review the language of their apology before making it. it feels a lot less heartfelt and more rehearsed.

However there are benefits t online apologies. First, you can make sure your apology reaches everyone. If you were a company that made a mistake and hurt thousands of people, it is not feasible to apologize face to face. This makes the apology possible to reach all those affected. Additionally, the benefit of an online apology is that it can be prepared and planned so that no empty promises are made and that no additional insult or injury comes from the apology. Sometimes when you try to apologize, you can make things worse, but with time to review the apology, these injuries may occur less frequently.

Very interesting exchanges so far.  It seems like one theme that has been raised is whether the use of text creates a helpful or unhelpful distance; and the orientation of the person to the distance appears to be part of the equation.  For example, if the distance is between the apologizer and the time taken to make it via writing an apology then there is the possibility it can be false because it is 'rehearsed' or more meaningful because it is based on careful reflection.  Another point about relationship between "distance" and the apologizer:  we can view the fact that the apology is being given through textual means as automatically 'too distant' since it is not visual and therefore it cues us to believe it is not genuine or the fact that it is textual and not visual can at least leave the receiver of the apology in doubt about the genuine nature of the apology.

That spurs me to ask whether there are other components that might be at play then, since distance and text can be employed or received very differently--either as more or less genuine.  What other attributes might be contributing to how we use or read/"read" distance and text in regards to an apology?

This topic is very interesting when we think about the shift away from private disputes to public acts of wrong-doing. One of the core faculty in our Dispute Resolution program at Wayne State (Donyale Padgett) has been studying apologies related to public crisis and scandal, and she has developed some interesting ideas about the role of third party groups online and their role and influence regarding the acceptability of a given attempt at apology. She has applied these ideas to the former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's text message scandal in an article entitled "Framing Kwame Kilpatrick: Third-Party Response to the Text Message ..." (Communication Studies. Vol 65, Issue 3, 2014). Here's a clip from the paper that begins to lay out some of the roles being played:

The public’s disapproval of the act of wrongdoing creates a sphere of indignation that consists of several groups within the public sphere, including the media, community and religious leaders, citizens, and other groups potentially victimized by the act. This ‘‘sphere of indignation’’ is an arena of public dialogue between third-party groups that runs parallel to the rhetoric of the accused. It is in this very public arena that (a) the content of the crisis is framed around issues of importance to constituent groups, (b) issues of blame and calls for punishment are weighed and debated as central components of forgiveness, and (c) the fate of the accused is decided relative to perceptions of the efficacy of the apologia and appeals toward re-establishing social legitimacy.

Hearit (2006) documents three roles third-party groups play in the aftermath of public scandal. The first role is that of victim, where third parties ‘‘usually in the form of a group or coalition (social movement), claim that the actions of another wronged them’’ (Hearit, 2006, p. 84). Third parties also function as ‘‘professional critics,’’ which is the second form. In this role, ‘‘these pundits are third-party observers who write or produce commentary about the actions of wrong- doing on the part of guilty parties and then propose public social sanction against them’’ (p. 84). Hearit further defines this group of ‘‘moral lecturers’’ as ‘‘certifying that an offense requires an apology’’ and ‘‘serving as judge and jury as they label the apology as either acceptable or unacceptable’’ (p. 84). The third and final role played by third-party responders to crisis is that of defense. As Hearit explains, ‘‘third parties regularly run to the defense of the accused and offer an explanation that accounts for the wrongdoing’’ (p. 84). In this role, these individuals and groups offer ‘‘third-party credibility to buttress the position of the apologist, be it in the form of a news conference or writing an op-ed piece in the wrongdoer’s defense’’ (p. 84).

It seems that we may need to expand our thinking about the various parties/publics involved in online apology and the way that discourse is shaped by social media in ways that were never before possible. 

Super interesting! So we have new roles and participants in the apology process. Maybe we should think about apologies as developing in stages, and the different roles played by various actors (including the crowd, or public). 

These comments are very enlightening for me, especially I work regularly with survivors of trauma. Our groups focused on integrating an individual's faith with their recovery work has shown me how apologies range significantly and are affected more by time and relationship than by deed. If an apology is offered by someone in a functioning and/or empathetically trusted connection, the impact can be life-changing, but it takes time to confirm a relationship is functioning and worthy of trust by someone whose trust has been breached. So, that "pre-work" is critical, and in many cases the apology is a juncture but neither a start - nor an end. This is very different from the effective ombudsman-like apologetic response and appropriate remuneration associated with commercial apologies. I'm curious if anyone has seen e-apologies work in highly and reasonably emotional situations?

what do you think of the following apology:


another interesting example, certainly an emotional situation - 



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