Communication Currents

Do We Forgive to Help Others or Ourselves?

February 1, 2016
Intercultural Communication

In China and the United States, people have different concepts of privacy, family, and collectivism versus individualism. While the two cultures might be contrastive in many ways, certain aspects of life could be universal, namely we forgive those who hurt us.

A team of researchers, Qin Zhang, Stella Ting-Toomey, John G. Oetzel, and Jibiao Zhang, joined forces to study whether American and Chinese people have cultural differences when it comes to their reasons for forgiveness. Among other things, the researchers also wanted to learn whether people in both cultures reported the same types of emotions pre-forgiveness and post-forgiveness, and how these emotions affect people’s motivation to forgive. For their study, they tested for feelings of anger and compassion, and whether those feelings had a negative or positive association with forgiveness.

The researchers surveyed 329 college students, 153 from a medium-sized university in the United States (48 male, 101 female, two unidentified) and 176 from a large university in China (43 male, 133 female). Respondents answered a 15-minute survey with Likert-type questions such as “I forgive my partner to heal the relationship between us” and “I forgive my partner for my own benefit.”

Why Do We Forgive? 

Do we forgive to maintain relationships, motivated by a desire for relational repair, reestablishment, and reconciliation (relationship-oriented forgiveness), or do we forgive as a personal decision that is motivated by the hope of personal healing, inner peace, or self-enhancement (self-oriented forgiveness)? There are clear differences in the ways individualistic cultures and collectivistic cultures approach relationships, so it is plausible that there would be different motivations behind people’s decisions to forgive.

The researchers found that Chinese participants reported more relationship-oriented forgiveness than Americans, but both Americans and Chinese participants reported more relationship-oriented forgiveness than self-oriented forgiveness. The authors explain that this could be attributed to the heavy skew toward female study participants; women generally are socialized more than men to focus on relationships. The study also asked people to think about a hurtful incident involving someone close to them. The closeness of the relationship could have tilted the results toward relationship-oriented forgiveness.

Emotions and Forgiveness 

Most people agree that forgiveness is an emotionally laden experience. It requires the forgiver to experience an emotional transformation from negative feelings of anger to positive feelings of compassion. The study found that in both the United States and China, people feel more compassion after they decide to forgive someone, and their feelings of anger tend to decrease after they have forgiven.

Researchers also found that the strongest emotion people feel before they forgive someone (anger or compassion) could predict whether or not they decide to reconcile with someone who has hurt them. If the hurt party feels more anger after the transgression, the likelihood of forgiveness is lower than if a person reports feelings of compassion. Participants from both China and the United States tended to feel angrier when they perceived the transgression against them as a “positive face” threat. Positive face is what the authors describe as “the need for approval and appreciation.” When people perceive a positive face threat, they worry about their image—whether or not their respectability is intact. People perceive threats to their positive face when others commit transgressions such as insults, lies, disrespect, contempt, and rudeness. According to the authors, “Face threat in transgressions…involves not only the loss of face but also the loss of power, dignity, and status.”

More Similarities Than Differences 

For both of the cultures studied, helping people to reframe perceived face threat in a relationship, while developing empathy and compassion for the transgressor, may also activate the beginning step for forgiveness and reconciliation in an important relationship.

Most important, the findings of this study suggest that there are more cultural similarities than differences in the emotions involved with forgiveness and reconciliation. If compassion is, indeed, positively associated with forgiveness and reconciliation across countries and cultures, future research and applied training in conflict resolution could help cultivate pan-cultural compassion.

About the author (s)

Stella Ting-Toomey

California State University, Fullerton


John Oetzel

University of Waikato


Jibiao Zhang

Central China Normal University

Associate Professor

Qin Zhang

Fairfield University