Women Apologize More Than Men. I'm Sorry, but I'm Not Going To Stop.

What Women Really Think
Feb. 5 2013 4:03 PM

I'm Sorry, but I'm Not Going To Stop Apologizing

sorry
It's OK.

Photo by violetblue/Shutterstock

A few weeks ago, Karyn Polewaczyk had plans to meet a friend for coffee. At the last minute, the friend canceled the date by way of a flurry of apologetic texts: "Ugggggggh” then “You’re going to kill me” then “Please don't hate me.” Polewaczyk’s friend was a woman. And so, in the wake of the digital sorryfest, she has turned to Jezebel to implore all women to quit saying they’re sorry so much. “It’s a she thing,” Polewaczyk writes. Women apologize more frequently than men do, and so women have got to stop.

Sorry, but I’m not going to stop saying I’m sorry. First, it’s not an established fact that women apologize more than men. Polewaczyk cites one highly circulated 2010 study of a small group of Canadians who were asked to record their daily offenses and apologies in a diary. The women recorded more of both. But in I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies, Nick Smith surveys the wider academic record on apology rates for men and women and finds no consensus on how often we send our regrets. One researcher found no discernible difference in how often men and women take the blame. Others relied almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence and interpretation. And none of these studies agree with one another on the definition of an apology—is it accepting blame for an event or just saying “I’m sorry”?

Advertisement

But let’s run with the assumption that women apologize a lot more than men do. Polewaczyk thinks this happens because “we think we're making everyone mad when we speak up” and because we “are expected to be exceptionally grateful for the crumbs tossed our way.” That’s one interpretation. But it's a reach to code all the “sorries” that come from women as signs of subservience. Linguist-of-the-sexes Deborah Tannen found that some women used “I’m sorry” as “an automatic tip of the verbal hat to acknowledge that something regrettable happened.” Close listeners, she says, know that in many instances, people say “I’m sorry” to “express sympathy and concern, not apology.”

And treating others with empathy doesn’t equal devaluing ourselves. Yoko Hosoi, a professor at Tokyo University, describes the “apology-forgiveness culture” among men and women in Japan as “an ingrained cultural heritage, which serves to make a harmonious, peace-oriented society”—not to lay blame or establish hierarchies. Saying “I’m sorry” is a cultural thing. Often, it's a positive one. And yet when we recognize a trend in the culture of women, our impulse is to say, “Women do X. Men do Y. Therefore, women should stop doing X.” Why don't we instead think: Perhaps men could be a little bit more like women. Actually, many of them already are. Smith cites a group of studies that found that both men and women apologize more to women than they do to men. These men and women are adapting to each other’s vocal styles, not forging the clear-cut gender hierarchy Polewaczyk describes.

Of course, reflexive apologies may be ingrained in Japan, but they are not totally benign in places where saying “I’m sorry” is still culturally coded as a weak, feminine thing. In the United States, men still outpace women in many of the “I’m awesome, and I’m not sorry” categories, like negotiating salaries and penning newspaper op-eds. But even if women apologize more, and even if they do so to seem compliant and deferential to men, I don’t think the solution is to instruct a select group of ladyblog readers to man up. For one thing, it's not that simple—some salary negotiation experts now instruct women to talk like ladies while they ask for a man's salary. It’s not the “sorry” that's the problem. It’s the sexism.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

TODAY IN SLATE

War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
War Stories
Sept. 23 2014 4:04 PM The Right Target Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
  Life
Outward
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 4:45 PM Why Is Autumn the Only Season With Two Names?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 1:50 PM Oh, the Futility! Frogs Try to Catch Worms off of an iPhone Video.
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.