We know Americans speak differently from one another, and it turns out that premise holds true for people’s last words before they’re executed.
There are regional differences in U.S. murderers’ last words, and men from the South are more likely to apologise in their final statements, according to a new study published in the journal SAGE Open and cited in the Smithsonian Magazine.
Psychologist Dr. Judy Eaton studied the last statements of 279 white males executed between 2000 and 2011, 220 of whom were executed in Southern states and 59 elsewhere in the U.S. She found 46% of offenders in Southern states apologized, compared to just 29% in other states.
The Southern offenders didn’t necessarily feel more remorse than Yankees, Eaton speculated. Rather, they may subscribe to a “culture of honour” that looks down on improper conduct and requires official apologies to clear their names.
An apology in 2000 from self-described “country gentleman” David Gibbs — a convicted killer and rapist — seems to back up Eaton’s theory:
This is a blow to everything I believe in . . . I don’t believe in hitting women. But for me to turn around and rape and murder two women . . . The point is I did it. We can blame it on my past, but that doesn’t take away what I did.
Here’s how apologies like this before an execution could fit in with the “culture of honour,” according to Eaton:
- The apologies meet Southern social norms of politeness and generosity.
- By apologizing, a Southern offender protects his own image of himself as an honorable person, as well as his public reputation for being honorable.
- A Southerner would want to apologise to protect his family’s reputation of being honorable.
Despite the evidence that Southern offenders were more likely to apologise in their final statements, Eaton’s findings revealed they were not more likely to show remorse in those statements. To determine remorse, Eaton measured not only apologies but also the extent to which offenders accepted responsibility for their crimes, asked for forgiveness, expressed regret, and demonstrated earnestness through sincerity. Eaton found no regional variance in remorse.
The fact that Southern offenders don’t necessarily show more remorse suggests that Southern politeness is not always genuine and may be used to disguise hostility, prevent anger, and/or maintain honour. Interestingly, this same “culture of honour” has been blamed for the relatively high rate of violent crime in the South. That culture has been traced to early settlers in the South, who developed extreme toughness, vigilance, and retaliation in order to protect their herds and hence their livelihood.
An experiment by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed how the “culture of honour” might lead to more violence. That experiment tested the reactions of Northerners and Southerners when someone bumped into them and called them “arsehole.”
Southerners were found more likely to react to that particular insult with aggressive or dominant behaviour. The researchers theorized that the Southern men felt they had to defend their honour when insulted.
There were some weaknesses in Eaton’s own study of last words, she acknowledged. She did not look at apologies given before final statements, and she categorized offenders as Southern based on the state that executed them even though they may have been born somewhere else.
Since non-Southern state had far fewer executions, it’s also possible those offenders were more hardened and thus incapable of saying, “I’m sorry.”
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.