At first blush, it would seem that the expression "I'm sorry" is clear enough to the person who hears it. It is not, however. Culture is a major factor in how the expression is understood. Four scholars--William Maddux, Peter Kim, Tetsushi Okumura, and Jeanne Brett--attend to this issue in the current issue of Harvard Business Review.
"[A] core issue is differing perceptions of culpability: Americans see an apology as an admission of wrongdoing, whereas Japanese see it as an expression of eagerness to repair a damanged relationship, with no culpability necessarily implied."
"The finding that Americans link apologies with blame is in keeping [...] with a psychological tendency among Westerners to attribute events to individuals' actions. Thus it makes sense that in the U.S., an apology is taken to mean "I am the one who is responsible." It also stands to reason that in Japan--which, like many other East Asian countries, has a more group-oriented culture--apologies are heard as "It is unfortunate that this happened."
Their final point is one that school leaders in communities with very diverse--and certainly heavily East Asian--populations should keep in mind: "Only with a deep understanding of such differences can executives make effective use of the apology as a tool for facilitating negotiations, resolving conflicts, and repairing trust."
So, the next time you are preparing to apologize, reflect in advance on your audience and the reach of your message. What kind of sorry are you?