Sorry, but it’s complicated

‘Sorry’ may have been the hardest word for Elton John, but to women it comes as naturally as breathing. Women, as everyone knows, apologise. They apologise constantly. They apologise unnecessarily. They apologise for things that aren’t their fault, and for things that require no apology from anyone. They’re like the proverbial cracked records with their ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’.

Recently we’ve become obsessed with the problem of the over-apologetic woman. She seems to pop up everywhere—not just where you’d expect to find her, in listicles with titles like ‘The Seven Ways Women Undermine Themselves At Work’ and products like the ‘Just Not Sorry’ plug-in which I wrote about last year, but also in shampoo adverts, comedy sketches and various other forms of humour (check out #7 in this set of cartoons).

The advice and coaching industry has an obvious interest in endlessly recirculating the idea that women apologise too much (it’s in the same category of female verbal misdemeanours as uptalk and ‘just‘ and ‘I feel like‘–all of them gifts that keep on giving if your business is creating problems that people will then pay you to solve). It’s not so obvious why it also gets uncritically recycled by feminists (there’s an example in this Woman’s Hour interview with the historian Amanda Foreman). It might seem that feminists have nothing to gain by repeating what is, after all, a negative stereotype; but some evidently see it as proving a point about the harmful effects of female socialisation. Excessive apologising, they say, is the behaviour of a person who’s been trained from early childhood to think of herself as a lesser being: to devalue and efface herself, put others’ needs before her own, take up as little space in the world as possible, and defer, in particular, to men.

As a feminist myself I don’t doubt that female socialisation has many damaging consequences for girls and women. But I still don’t buy the argument that women over-apologise because they’ve been socialised to be self-effacing and deferential. It may sound plausible, but here’s why I don’t think it’s true.

First, let’s just go back a step. So far I’ve been taking it for granted that women really are the more apologetic sex. But that shouldn’t be accepted without question: the evidence from research is mixed. Some studies have found women apologizing more than men, but others have found no difference. Which findings you give more weight to is a judgment call, and researchers have different views.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that there probably is a tendency for women to apologise more frequently than men (though the usual caveats apply: this generalisation may not be valid for every group of women in every context, and it certainly won’t be valid for every individual woman). However, there’s a difference between description and interpretation: even if we accept that this tendency exists, it doesn’t follow that women apologise ‘too much’ (too much in relation to what?), nor that the reason must be their socialised unassertiveness and deference. In fact, if you dig a bit deeper into the research, you discover there are other patterns which don’t fit with that assumption.

One of the most detailed investigations of gender differences in apologising was done in the 1990s by the New Zealand linguist Janet Holmes. Holmes recorded naturally-occurring talk in a range of social situations, and extracted all the sequences that included apologies (183 in total). As well as counting the frequency with which men and women apologised, she looked at who they apologised to, what they apologised for, how they formulated their apologies and how those apologies were received.

Holmes’s is one of the studies I mentioned earlier which did find women apologising more than men. A lot more, in fact: women produced nearly three quarters of all apologies. But there was another, equally striking pattern: the majority of female apologies, accounting for 55% of all the apologies in the data, were cases of women apologising to other women. Apologies from women to men accounted for about 18% of cases, apologies from men to women for about 17%, and apologies from men to other men for just 8.5%.

These figures are hard to reconcile with the belief that women’s apologies are displays of deference and subordinate status. If that were the issue, you’d expect women to apologise more frequently to men than to other women; you might also expect women, as the subordinate sex, to receive fewer apologies from men than they give to men. In this study, however, cross-sex apologies occurred with more or less equal frequency in both directions. Almost the whole of the overall gender difference was the result of the very large difference between women’s behaviour towards other women and men’s towards other men.

What Holmes actually found, then, was not a general tendency for men and women to behave differently, but a more specific tendency for them to behave very differently with members of their own sex. The standard story about unassertive and deferential women doesn’t explain that. Why would women become less deferential when addressing their social superiors, men, and conversely why would men defer to their subordinates, women, twice as often as they defer to their male peers?

But if it isn’t about deference, what is the gender difference about? Holmes offers two suggestions.

The first is that men and women may understand the act of apologising differently, with women seeing it primarily as a way of maintaining good relationships by displaying concern for others, whereas men see it primarily as an admission of inadequacy or guilt. This second interpretation is more negative, and that may explain why men avoid apologising (or dare I say, ‘under-apologise’?) with other men who share their understanding of it as demeaning. (Though it doesn’t really explain why men are more willing to apologise to women: perhaps they think women won’t judge them in the same way, or perhaps they don’t care so much what women think.) Among women, on the other hand, apologising is interpreted more positively: it need not diminish your status, and it may even earn you credit for being a nice person.

Holmes’s second suggestion is that men and women may have different perceptions of what’s offensive enough to require an apology. In her data, a higher proportion of men’s apologies were for relatively serious offences (like forgetting a date with someone or damaging one of their possessions). This led her to wonder if women apologised more because they felt the need to apologise for things men would dismiss as trivial. (Interestingly, she found women were more likely than men to apologise for what she calls ‘space and talk offences’—things like inadvertently touching or interrupting another person. She suggests that women may be more sensitive to these transgressions because they’re so often committed against women–most typically, of course, by men.)

The idea that men have a higher threshold for perceiving behaviour as offensive has received some support from other research. The psychologists Karina Schumann and Michael Ross  got research subjects to keep a diary of all their offensive acts, and to say, in each case, whether they had apologised. They found that women and men reported apologising for a similar proportion of the offences they’d committed, but the raw numbers—of both offensive acts and apologies—were higher for the women than the men. This suggested that women had considered more acts offensive enough to need redress. To test this hypothesis, the researchers designed an experimental task where subjects had to rate the seriousness of various offences. They found, as they expected, that their female subjects gave higher ratings.

Readers who know something about the study of language and gender may think that Holmes’s arguments are somewhat reminiscent of what’s been labelled the ‘difference’ or ‘two cultures’ approach, because it treats differing patterns of language-use among men and women as the product of quasi-cultural differences. The idea is that the sexes behave differently because they understand things differently, and they understand things differently because their experiences and values are different. But you can’t say that one sex’s way of doing things is better or worse than the other’s, any more than you would say Japanese culture is better or worse than Greek culture. They’re just different: ‘different but equal’. The classic statement of this position is Deborah Tannen’s popular bestseller You Just Don’t Understand, which has been criticised by other scholars (full disclosure: I’m one of them) for glossing over the issue of structural sexual inequality. Does Holmes’s explanation of gender differences in apologising invite the same criticism? Is she saying that women’s tendency to apologise more than men has nothing to do with power and inequality?

The short answer is no: Holmes’s position is not the same as Tannen’s. She believes that ultimately, ‘power is the issue’:

Women’s ways of talking differ from men’s because each group has developed interactional strategies which reflect their societal position. The different patterns of interaction into which girls and boys are socialised are not randomly different. Their features are attuned to the requirements of the society.

As a general observation this is not, of course, incompatible with the popular story about over-apologetic women (which says that women’s societal position requires them to be unassertive and deferential). The trouble with that story is that it leaves some patterns unexplained (in particular, the difference Holmes observed between cross-sex and same-sex behaviour). The relationship it posits between apologising and subordinate status is too simple and general to account for the reality of women’s (or men’s) behaviour. But there’s another way to relate apologising to the requirements of an unequal, male dominated society. Rather than treat it as a general expression of female powerlessness, we could connect it to a more specific feature of social structure which is directly linked to women’s subordinate status: the division of labour which makes caring for others a female responsibility.

The aim of an apology is to maintain or restore harmony. Apologising says: ‘I accept that I have given (or might give) offence, I regret that and I ask for your forgiveness’.  By implication it also says: ‘your feelings matter to me: I understand that you may feel bad and I want you to feel better’. In that sense apologising can be seen as a form of emotional labour, part of the work of managing your own and others’ feelings. And willingness to perform emotional labour is one of the most basic things that’s expected of women just because they are women. Even when they’re not explicitly cast in a caring role (like ‘mother’), women are routinely expected to pay attention to others’ feelings, and pour oil on troubled waters when harmony is threatened. They’re expected both to apologise when others are or could be offended, and to forgive when others have offended them (Holmes found that women were less likely than men to reject an apology and more likely to accept one).

I would argue that women’s apologising behaviour has more to do with these gendered expectations than it does with lack of confidence and self-esteem. In fact, I suspect that for some women, this behaviour may actually be a source of self-esteem. Not all women embrace their prescribed role with joy, but even if we don’t much like our jobs, most of us derive some satisfaction from being good at them. And while selflessness and nurturance may be poorly rewarded in material terms, they do come with moral and social benefits.

In this case one key benefit may be the approval of your female peers. Although you often hear women castigating themselves publicly for the sin of ‘over-apologising’ (a term  which covertly treats what men do as the norm), the high frequency of apologies between women suggests that privately they may not regard men’s behaviour as the gold standard. And indeed, why should they? What’s wrong with showing concern for others? From a feminist perspective, nothing: the problem isn’t that caring is inherently worthless or degrading, it’s that the responsibility for caring is unfairly distributed, obliging most women to do too much while most men do far too little.

This already unfair distribution of rights and obligations can give rise to a further injustice, with men getting more credit than women when they do show consideration for others. In a study conducted by a group of researchers in Israel, subjects were asked to imagine that a work colleague had scheduled a meeting and then failed to turn up for it. They were then given a letter which the colleague had supposedly written, apologising for the inconvenience and promising it would not happen again. The letter was always the same, but some subjects were told that the writer was their boss, others that the writer was their subordinate. In addition, the writer was presented to some subjects as male (‘David’) and to others as female (‘Rachel’). After reading the letter, the subjects were asked to judge the sincerity of the apology and to say how willing they were to forgive the writer.

The researchers found that people’s judgments were influenced by both status and gender:

the most effective apology was by a male manager, followed by a female manager, a male subordinate and finally a female subordinate.

They explain:

The less expected an apology, the more effective it is.  …When an apology is not socially obligatory, [it] will be more accepted and more highly esteemed.

A subordinate who apologises to the boss is merely doing what’s expected, whereas a boss who apologises to a subordinate is perceived as displaying unusual magnanimity. Gender has a similar (though slightly weaker) effect. A woman who apologises is meeting others’ expectations, whereas a man is exceeding them, and the response is therefore more positive. The researchers conclude by suggesting that managers shouldn’t treat apologising as a ‘powerless’ and therefore risky move: done strategically, it can actually enhance your reputation. Especially, it seems, if you’re a man.

Where does this leave us? Again, I’d say it’s complicated. On one hand, I think we should reject the popular stereotype of the over-apologetic woman, along with the language-policing it’s used to justify. It isn’t true that women ‘over-apologise’ because they are timid, deferential creatures: the fact (if it is one) that they apologise more than men seems to have more to do with showing concern for others’ feelings. Do feminists really want to disparage that as a weakness?

On the other hand, as Janet Holmes points out, women and men don’t make linguistic choices in a vacuum: they are expected to behave in certain ways, and if they choose not to they will pay a price. Maintaining harmonious relationships is an obligation imposed on women rather than something that just comes naturally; it is one of the many unjust burdens women carry in this world, and as such there is every reason for feminists to criticise it. The question is whether we can find a way to do that without ridiculing, shaming or bullying women for the way they do or don’t speak.