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When we say the wrong thing...repairing the message

The minute the words are said, the regret sets in.

Communication scientists from Case Western Reserve University and Kent State University have studied how and why people choose certain ways to repair the damage done once hurtful words are spoken.

According to Jane R. Meyer from Kent State and Kyra Rothenberg from Case, most people offered an apology, spurred by guilt to mend any offense their remarks might cause in an intimate relationship. Following the offer of an apology, the next popular ways people choose to smooth over the offensive message were to excuse or justify why the words were said. When embarrassed, people tended to avoid the message's receiver instead of making excuses or apologies.

The researchers discuss communication strategies in the article, "Repairing Regretted Messages: Effects of Emotional State, Relationship Type, and Seriousness of Offense," in Communication Research Reports, which sought answers to several questions:

  • Does the seriousness of the regretted message predict a certain response?
  • Is the type of repair strategy linked to the kind of relationship the person has to the message's receiver?
  • How do emotions like guilt, shame, sadness, fright, anxiety or embarrassment affect the choice of response?

The researchers surveyed 204 undergraduates between the ages of 18 and 54 at a Midwestern university, asking them to recall a regretted conversation and write down what happened. The participants rated the seriousness of the offense and characterized their relationship with the person who heard what was said. Participants also checked off the strategies they used to repair the damage.

Meyer and Rothenberg discuss eight strategies people employ to smooth over the discomfort of the situation: an apology or concession, an excuse, a justification, a denial, silence, words to offset the harm, non-verbal reactions (like covering one's mouth after the w
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Contact: Susan Griffith
susan.griffith@case.edu
216-368-1004
Case Western Reserve University
31-Jan-2006


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