Cross-cultural Apologies

28 07 2010

I’m just starting to get into the fact that different cultures do apologies in different ways. There seems, however, to be some common threads. One of these, the longing for evidence of remorse or repentance or redemption, I read about in Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation (Picador, 2004). What struck me in the example given, from Samoa,  was the place of the symbolic. Garner writes:

“In  Samoa, a cabinet minister was assassinated. One night his grieving widow heard voices under her window, and looked out. There, on their knees with ceremonial woven mats laid across their shoulders, was the entire extended family of the man who had murdered her husband, with forty of his fellow-villagers. They had come to bear witness to their collective responsibility, to express their grief and shame, and to offer reparation” (p.290).

Two things strike me about this custom. First, that because the culture has created this symbolic vehicle, the issue of personal sincerity (a big thing in Western-style public apologies)  is avoided. Second, that the custom seems intimately related to the saying “It takes a village to raise a child”: maybe it takes a village to repent a wrong.