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This week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez delivered a powerful speech condemning the behaviour of a colleague, Florida Congressman Ted Yoho. Yoho had a problem with some comments she had made suggesting that a recent spike in crime was related to rising unemployment and poverty; he accosted her on the steps of the Capitol, and in the ensuing heated exchange he called her ‘disgusting’, ‘out of your freaking mind’ and finally (according to a reporter who overheard him, though by that time Ocasio-Cortez herself had walked away) a ‘fucking bitch’.

When the reporter’s account was published there were calls for Yoho to be sanctioned: a day later he made an apology to the House which Ocasio-Cortez and many others found woefully inadequate. In her own statement she said that she could have let the original insult pass—she’d heard far worse while waiting tables in New York City—but Yoho’s denial that he used the words ‘fucking bitch’, his lack of genuine regret and the House’s acceptance of his ‘non-apology’ had made her want to pursue the matter further.

This is, among other things, a story about language and power. It unfolded in three parts, and since each part brought a different aspect of language to the fore, I’ll consider them one by one.

I:  The insult

I’ll start where the story did, with a man calling a woman a bitch. What does that mean, and what does it accomplish? Ocasio-Cortez described it as ‘dehumanising’, and on one level she’s obviously right: ‘bitch’ represents a human woman as a non-human (canine) female animal. On reflection, though, we might wonder if that’s really what gives the insult its force. Many other labels compare women to animals—they can also be called, for instance, cows, sows, vixens, cougars and tigresses. In most cases, though, it’s more obvious what attribute of the animal is being invoked. A sow is fat, a vixen is sly, a cougar is predatory, a tigress is fierce. But what is the attribute linking canine bitches to human ones?

There are idioms (like ‘you’re my bitch now’) which suggest that the reference is to being dominated—the bitch is the submissive one, the bottom; but I don’t think that’s the prototypical meaning of ‘bitch’ when it’s used to insult a woman. On the contrary, in fact, women are typically labelled bitches when they aren’t submissive enough. The classic bitch is an ‘uppity’ woman–ambitious, powerful, outspoken, independent, non-compliant or outright disobedient.

Ambitious, outspoken and widely considered a rising star, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fits the ‘uppity woman’ profile. That’s probably why, following an argument to which her sex was irrelevant–and which ended when she called him rude and walked away–Ted Yoho reached for the sex-specific insult ‘bitch’. If the argument had been with a male politician he would doubtless have found the man’s behaviour offensive; he might have called the man ‘disgusting’ and ‘out of your freaking mind’. But he wouldn’t have called a man a ‘fucking bitch’. The sin of the bitch–asserting herself while female–is one men cannot commit.

‘Bitch’, we might conclude, is not so much a dehumanising term as a misogynist one. Its function is both to punish individual women who transgress in the ways just outlined, and to police the behaviour of women in general (‘listen and learn, ladies: if you don’t want to be called a bitch, you won’t do what that bitch did’). In the lexicon of misogyny it’s the ultimate all-rounder.

(Incidentally, if you’re still wondering what human bitches have to do with canine ones, there may be a clue in the earlier history of the word. When ‘bitch’ was first, to quote the OED, ‘applied opprobriously to a woman’ (the earliest citation for this sense is dated 1400) it meant ‘a lewd or sensual woman’, or in other words, a whore. So, originally I suspect the relevant canine comparison was with the insatiable sexual appetite of a bitch in heat.)

II: The (non) apology

In the second part of the story, which began when the incident on the Capitol steps was reported in the press, attention turned from Yoho’s offence itself to the apology he was forced to make for it. Apologising is what politeness theorists call a ‘face-threatening act’, of a kind which (especially if it is public) demands a carefully-considered balancing act: you need to display humility, but without allowing yourself to be humiliated. If you get this balance right, apologising can actually enhance your status. But there are many ways to get it wrong.

Yoho clearly got it wrong: many reports referred to what he delivered as a ‘non-apology’. To see why, let’s take a closer look at his statement. (I am linking, with apologies, to Fox News, because their report has an embedded clip, and in this case it’s instructive to listen to the vocal delivery as well as reading the words.) The quote below is the beginning of the apology proper:

I rise to apologize for the abrupt manner of the conversation I had with my colleague from New York. It is true that we disagree on policies and visions for America. But that does not mean we should be disrespectful. Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of the language I use. The offensive name-calling words attributed to me by the press were never spoken to my colleague, and if they were construed that way I apologise for their misunderstanding.

In the rest of the statement he explains why he felt strongly about Ocasio-Cortez’s comments on crime and poverty; he talks about his own experience of poverty and his interest in helping other poor people to succeed. He concludes: ‘I cannot apologise for my passion, or for loving my God, my family and my country’.

Perhaps the most obvious explanation for the judgment of this statement as inadequate is what’s conspicuously missing from it: Yoho did not apologise for what was generally regarded as his most serious offence, referring to a colleague as a ‘fucking bitch’. Rather he denied that he had used ‘the offensive name-calling words attributed to me by the press’. Had he left it there it would just have been his word against the word of the reporter who claimed to have heard him utter the offending phrase. But instead he opened up a whole new can of worms by adding: ‘and if they were construed that way I apologise for their misunderstanding’.

This sentence is a puzzle which I admit I have failed to solve. ‘They’ and ‘their’ presumably refer back to ‘the offensive name-calling words’; but he’s just said those words ‘were never spoken to my colleague’. How can unspoken words be ‘construed that way’, or indeed any way? Is his point that he didn’t address the words directly to Ocasio-Cortez (‘my colleague’), but only uttered them after she had left (and if so, how does that make it better?) Or is he saying he used other words, which the reporter misheard as ‘fucking bitch’? The harder you look, the more opaque this denial becomes.

Yoho does manage to apologise for ‘the abrupt manner of the conversation I had with my colleague’. But as Ocasio-Cortez pointed out on Twitter, the words he chooses (‘abrupt manner’, ‘conversation’) downplay the aggressiveness of his behaviour. There’s also something weaselly about his use of pronouns in ‘it’s true that we disagree….but that does not mean we should be disrespectful’. It’s clear that the first ‘we’ must refer to him and Ocasio-Cortez. But what about the second one? He might claim it’s a more generic reference to ‘people who disagree’, but more likely it refers to the same two people as before—in which case the implication is that Ocasio-Cortez was also disrespectful, and should share the blame for ‘the abrupt manner of the conversation’ .

Yoho later muddies the waters further by making an explicit non-apology: ‘I cannot apologise for my passion’. Though he may not have intended this as a retraction of his earlier apology for ‘the abrupt manner of the conversation’, it’s not hard to see how that inference might be drawn. If we reason that Yoho spoke abruptly because of his passion, then his refusal to apologise for his passion may suggest that he didn’t really mean it when he apologised for being abrupt.

A felicitous apology must acknowledge that the speaker did something to cause another person harm or offence, it must express the speaker’s regret, and the expression of regret must be sincere (or at least, perceived as sincere by the addressee). Yoho’s statement fails on all counts. His acknowledgment is partial and selective, hedged about with denials, self-justifications and deflections of blame onto others; there is no expression of regret, and only the self-justifications come across as sincere.

And speaking of self-justifications…

Part III: the rhetoric

Though there’s nothing I like about Yoho’s statement, the part of it I dislike most is the reference he makes to his status as a husband and father: ‘Having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of the language I use’. Or, translated into the dialect of his fellow conservative Republicans, ‘I have far too much respect for women to let the words “fucking bitch” pass my lips’.

This sententious drivel is in a long line of similar statements made by conservative politicians in recent years. Think back to 2016, when senior Republicans reacted to the release of the Hollywood Access tape—the one where their candidate and future president Donald Trump boasted about ‘grabbing [women] by the pussy’—by claiming to be offended on behalf of their wives, mothers and daughters. Or to 2018, when Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that she’d been sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee (now Justice) Brett Kavanaugh prompted Kavanaugh to become tearful about the toll her alllegations were taking on his family. The other men in the room felt his pain: ‘I know as a father’, smarmed Ted Cruz, ‘there’s been nothing more painful to you than talking to your daughters and explaining these attacks’. You couldn’t have asked for a clearer demonstration that some women matter, others don’t, and powerful men decide which are which.

But when Yoho played the family card, Ocasio-Cortez evidently saw an opportunity. In the most powerful part of her statement, she pointed out that she too was somebody’s daughter. She was glad, she said, that her late father was not around to read about her mistreatment in the papers. She told the House that by accepting Yoho’s non-apology they were giving permission for their own wives and daughters to be treated by other men in the way he had treated her.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but I wish she’d taken a different tack. Though her speech was eloquent, and doubtless designed, like all good rhetoric, for a particular audience and setting, ‘remember every woman is some man’s daughter/ sister/ mother/ wife’ is a deeply patriarchal argument. If feminists can agree on nothing else, they can surely agree that women are people in their own right, and deserve to be valued for their own sake.

But I’m not going to labour the point, because Ocasio-Cortez is getting plenty of grief already: if I waited a little longer I could probably add a fourth part to the story, headed ‘the backlash’. Exhibit A is an article in yesterday’s New York Times, which reported on Ocasio-Cortez’s statement, and commented that she ‘excels at using her detractors to amplify her own political brand’. Ambitious, disruptive, opportunistic, self-promoting…the Times doesn’t need to use the B-word to make the point. The media narrative has come full circle; but the real story, like the struggle, goes on.

The return of ‘female email’

Do you remember your 2016 new year’s resolution? Was it to get more exercise, maybe? Give up the demon drink? Spend less time on Facebook and more with your real-life friends? Or was it, perhaps, to send ‘more effective email’, as recommended by the developers of an app called ‘Just Not Sorry’?

This app was intended to empower working women by encouraging them to delete ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ from their emails. If you hovered your mouse over one of the offending words you’d see a pop-up message from a communication ‘expert’, like “just” demeans what you have to say’, or ‘using “sorry” frequently undermines your gravitas’.

But even this ingenious invention seems not to have fixed women’s email problem. Last month the Telegraph ran a piece entitled ‘Sorry to bother you: how women can stop writing emails “like a girl” at work’. It begins with what the writer claims is a typically female email:

Hello! Hope you’re well and that you’re having a lovely week! So sorry to bother you, but I was just wondering if you could read the below article I’ve written? No worries at all if not – I know you must be super busy. Thank you so much for your time! Best wishes.

These 50-odd words are like a whistle-stop tour of women’s language stereotypes from the last half-century: they include a ‘just’, two ‘sos’, a ‘sorry’, a ‘lovely’, a superpolite indirect request (‘I was just wondering if you could…?’), and a veritable forest of exclamation marks. If the message had only ended with a smiley face emoji we could all have shouted ‘House!’

This much-maligned email style is generally assumed to be something women acquire in their teenage years, carry with them into the workplace, and need remedial instruction to get rid of. But last week a piece on Canada’s Global News website turned that assumption on its head. According to the reporter Meghan Collie, women in workplaces around North America are being told by their bosses, not to stop writing email ‘like a girl’, but on the contrary, to make their emails more girly.

Take Carlee Barackman, a former employee at a tech startup in Detroit who describes her email style as ‘short and to the point’:

Barackman thought she was emailing like everyone else — until her CEO pulled her aside to talk about her “harsh” language… While he didn’t explicitly ask her to soften her writing style, Barackman said it was implied, and she decided against it. “I had work to do and I didn’t want to spend extra time trying to convey my bubbly personality in an email,” she said.

Sometime later, Barackman replied to an email with “okay, thanks,” — no punctuation, no emojis — and her CEO called her out. Barackman agreed to try and “lighten it up,” but she didn’t really know what that meant. It was salt on the wound when Barackman saw an email thread between her male colleagues with writing nearly identical to the style that got her in trouble.

“I remember sitting down at my desk and having no idea who to ask about how to email like a woman. Is emailing like a woman even a thing?” she said. “I felt worried that, by adding extra fluff to an email, I would appear unprofessional, and also worried that, if I kept my replies short and direct, everyone would assume I was angry,” she said.

Carlee Barackman was only one of the many women who responded to the call Meghan Collie put out on Twitter: ‘Do you work in an office? Have you ever felt pressure to use emojis or exclamation points to soften your message?’ Affirmative answers flooded in, and they suggested that emojis and exclamation marks were only the tip of the iceberg.

I’ve been told numerous times to soften up my emails. I use smilies and ! In almost every email, and say please and thank you so much it would be weird if we were in person. I also throw in “just” a lot.

I have no idea what you’re talking about [followed by a screenshot of an email that reads “Awesome! I have been in and made the required edits! Thank you 😊]

I have been told to soften my tone, I notice that men and some women that they favor for whatever reason, are allowed to be rude, abusive and abrupt by email or message. The rest of us…get our tone policed. I have used emoji or “if that makes sense” a lot

I think it also comes down to what men can get away with in emails that women can’t — I once had a male manager write in all caps to get his point across.

I find men can get away with being short, rude and degrading but as soon as a woman does it, they get pulled in for it.

I hate exclamation points. Absolutely hate them. …But yes, I feel forced to use them to blend in & be polite! All the time! I’m so excited about absolutely nothing & here’s the punctuation to prove it!

I have consciously been removing exclamation points and emojis, apologies and just-a-quick-question from my emails for years. Why diminish yourself when you are simply communicating?

I read about how women apologize a lot in emails. Especially with saying the word “just”. I noticed how often I did it and it has been a LONG JOURNEY to remove those things from my email repertoire! No need to excuse myself for doing my job.

I confess I was taken aback by these vignettes.  Although I’ve spent a fair bit of my life observing the policing of language at work, the verbal hygiene practices described in this Twitter thread stand out for both their intrusiveness and their pettiness: managers scrutinizing internal emails in minute detail, and pulling individual employees aside (especially, it seems, if they’re female) to warn them about their tone. How is this a productive use of anyone’s working time?

The women who responded to Meghan Collie were also, for the most part, critical of the practices they described, often stating explicitly that the style they felt obliged to adopt did not reflect their own preferences. Some women clearly resented the tone-policing of their email, and a few reported actively resisting it. Many of these resisters invoked the competing, ‘Just Not Sorry’ genre of verbal hygiene to justify their rejection of ‘weak’ and ‘demeaning’ language. The irony of this–using one kind of sexist bullshit to fight another–isn’t lost on me, but I can’t really quarrel with the perception of ‘Just Not Sorry’ as the lesser of the two evils. ‘Empowerment’ may be a weasel word, but it’s surely preferable to self-abasement.

The ‘Just Not Sorry’ message has had a lot of media exposure because it resonates with the aspirational, ‘lean in’ ethos of the media outlets which commission pieces like the Telegraph’s. Precisely because it can’t so easily be spun as ’empowering’, the ‘Softly Softly’ approach hasn’t attracted the same attention. (I notice that no one has developed an app called ‘Soften Your Message’, or ‘Everything Is Awesome!’, with pop-up messages like ‘if you don’t add a smiley face people will think you’re angry’, or ‘do you love your job? Then say it with !!!’) But despite its low cultural profile. ‘Softly Softly’-style language policing is evidently a reality in many workplaces. What, we might wonder, is this about? Why are women–and, to some extent, men too–being instructed to ‘soften’, ‘lighten up’ or add ‘extra fluff’ to their emails?

On closer inspection, what Meghan Collie and her correspondents call ‘message softeners’–things like exclamation marks, emoji, hedges like ‘just’ and stock phrases like ‘sorry to bother you’ or ‘if that makes sense’–seem to serve two main purposes, which can in turn be related to two overarching norms of workplace communication.

First, there seems to be a clear norm prescribing the explicit expression of positive affect and high involvement. It’s not just that negative messages are frowned on: neutral, low-key formulations like Carlee Barackman’s ‘okay thanks’ are not acceptable either. This is what motivates the liberal use of exclamation marks and emoji (or more exactly, a subset of emoji–smileys and thumbs-up signs rather than, say, piles of poo). As conventional signifiers of excitement, enthusiasm, happiness or satisfaction, they inject a note of unambiguous positivity into even very short and banal communications. Accentuating the positive is also the function of phatic formulas like the Telegraph writer’s ‘hope you’re having a lovely week!’ and the hyperbole of responses like ‘Awesome!’ The message is something like, ‘I want you to know I’m thrilled to be at work, delighted to be communicating with you and eager to show I value your contribution’.

The second overarching norm complements the first: it could be glossed as ‘minimize the risk of conflict or offence by avoiding anything that could conceivably be read as angry, critical, overbearing or even just a bit inconsiderate’. This is the purpose served by formulas like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, ‘sorry to bother you’ and ‘just a quick question’ (implying: ‘I know your time is precious’). It’s also the point of appending ‘if that makes sense’ to, for instance, a series of instructions or a piece of critical feedback. Here what’s being ‘softened’ is the presumptuousness of judging others or telling them what to do.

As some readers will doubtless have noticed, the two norms just outlined call for, respectively, the use of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ politeness. (These terms are taken from the work of politeness theorists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson: in their model, positive politeness addresses the desire every person has to be approved of or cared about (prototypical positive politeness formulas include ‘have a nice day’, and ‘congratulations!’), while negative politeness addresses people’s desire not to be imposed on (prototypical formulas include ‘excuse me’ and ‘sorry’).)  As I’ve explained in previous posts, one of my main beefs with the ‘Just Not Sorry’ brigade is their insistence on treating politeness features as ‘fluff’ or ‘clutter’, things that detract from the message and so impede communication, when in fact they’re essential elements of any interaction between humans. Politeness per se is not a problem: taking out all the ‘justs’ and ‘sorries’ is only good advice if your ambition is to sound like a jerk. However, two things about the ‘Softly Softly’ approach do strike me as more problematic.

One problem is that the rules are so inflexible. In everyday life, the way we use linguistic markers of politeness reflects our assessment of how seriously what we’re saying might hurt, offend or impose on the other person. You wouldn’t hedge a request to pass the salt in the same way you’d hedge a request to lend you £100; you wouldn’t congratulate someone as enthusiastically on winning a pub raffle as you’d congratulate them on winning a Nobel Prize. In ‘Softly Softly’ world, however, everything gets the same ‘I’m so excited’ or ‘I’m so sorry’ treatment: as some of Meghan Collie’s correspondents observed, maintaining this high level of excitement or solicitude can be exhausting, and it can also come across as quite bizarre.

The other striking thing is the emphasis placed on expressing positive feelings, about everything and to everyone. In workplaces I do think that’s a novel development–particularly if we’re talking about internal back-office communications (accentuating the positive has a longer history in customer service). And what’s behind it, I would argue, is a combination of recent changes in workplace culture and innovations in digital communication.

Over the last 30 years, many workplaces have become less formal and overtly hierarchical, and more focused on collaborative teamwork. In the current era of precarity, companies also tend to have fewer permanent employees and more short-term contract staff. Arguably, these conditions provide fertile ground for things like the demand to accentuate the positive in dealing with co-workers (which displays your credentials as a ‘team player’) and the pressure to display enthusiasm for routine tasks (if you appear bored or disengaged you’re potentially giving your employer a reason not to renew your contract).

At the same time, more and more workplace interactions that would once have been conducted face-to-face have moved online. Email, though still available for the purposes it originally served in business contexts (sending the digital equivalent of letters and internal memos), has also become a medium for co-workers to ask each other quick questions, give brief reports and engage in rapid-fire problem-solving interactions. And what seems to have happened is that the workplace email has borrowed some of the strategies developed for text-based interaction outside work (e.g. on social media and via instant messaging apps), such as the repurposing of punctuation marks to signal affect. (As any teenager will tell you, not putting an emoji or a ! at the end of a text message risks coming across as angry; ending texts with a traditional full stop is rude because it signifies disapproval–though the students who made me aware of this say they try not to judge clueless old people like their mothers too harshly for this offence.)

Imported into the workplace, however, these strategies can create problems that don’t arise, or not so markedly, in other contexts. Some people find email messages larded with emoji and exclamation marks contextually inappropriate–too informal for professional settings, or too personal for interaction with non-intimates. Others find this mode of expression insincere—and not without reason, since at work you’re very likely to be communicating feelings or attitudes you don’t actually have, to people who also know you’re faking, because they’re doing the same thing themselves. (Has anyone ever read a message like ‘I’m so excited for this afternoon’s meeting!!!’ and taken it as a faithful reflection of the writer’s true feelings?)

In principle, the new workplace norms apply to everyone, men as well as women: one man told Meghan Collie that ‘In a previous role, I was told to be “20% friendlier” in my emails and to soften them with smileys’. In practice, however, many contributors to the thread believed that women’s language was more heavily policed than men’s. Whereas men’s failure or refusal to comply with the rules was frequently tolerated (even, reportedly, when this involved such gross breaches as ranting at length in all caps), women could rarely get away with even slight deviations from the prescribed style.

This double standard isn’t hard to explain. The new workplace verbal hygiene is about fostering co-operation and maintaining harmonious relationships by paying solicitous attention to people’s feelings–a responsibility that has been assigned to women since time immemorial. Women are thought to be ‘naturally’ caring, more emotionally expressive than men and more sensitive to others’ needs. We expect them to do more emotional caretaking, we hold them to higher standards, and we punish them more severely when they fall short.

But as depressing as all this is, the Twitter comments quoted earlier give me hope. They show women aren’t just sucking it up: they are critical of the linguistic demands made in their workplaces, and in some cases they are refusing to ‘soften their message’. This rejection of sexist bullshit has my full and unequivocal support. Rise up, sisters: you have nothing to lose but your !!! 😊😊–if that makes sense.

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.