The apology is a speech act which has deep and wide social and psychological significance. In both popular and academic notions of politeness it is perhaps the example par excellence of politeness at work. As Holmes (1998: 217), rightly, contends, “the apology is quintessentially a politeness strategy”. In both public and private interaction, the need for an apology signifies that something has gone wrong and needs to be put right. In terms of spoken encounters, to utter an apology involves the speaker acknowledging some perceived social transgression and the hearer receiving and dealing with this act. The apology arguably puts both speaker and hearer in a precarious relational position and necessitates remedial “facework” (Goffman 1971), usually involving some form of linguistic management. Furthermore, the nature of the apology can be very important in resolving a variety of types of conflict, ranging from uncomfortable moments in conversation through serious breaches of social and/or cultural norms by an individual to incidents with national or international political significance (See Zhang 2001; Harris et al. forthcoming; Jeffries forthcoming). As such, apologies, along with requests, have probably generated more research in the past two decades than any other form of speech act. Much of this research has emerged in relation to pragmatics and politeness theory but has also come from a variety of other disciplines, i. e., sociolinguistics, social psychology, philosophy and foreign language teaching.
In this article we will attempt to address some of the issues that arise in researching politeness in the workplace, especially, though not exclusively, in the context of multicultural and multilingual encounters. We propose to look at debates around the nature of politeness and their relevance for research in work settings and to discuss the contribution made to these debates by analyses of politeness in the workplace. Finally, we will discuss some of the methodological problems that field researchers will face when conducting research on the field, especially in intercultural work contexts. These will include, for example, issues such as the choice of methodology/s, confidentiality, the nature of the involvement of the researcher, making use of multi-method approaches, the comparability of analytical categories across different languages and culture. Finally, we suggest, very briefly, some directions for further research.