The XX Factor

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

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”?

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.