Never Apologize; It’s a Sign of Weakness–? November 1, 2010Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
Tags: apologies, contrition, Deborah Tannen, Elizabeth Bernstein
Recently the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada published two studies on men’s and women’s habits of apologizing, and Elizabeth Bernstein from the Wall Street Journal did a piece about it last week.
According to new research from Canadian psychologists, people apologize about four times a week. But, on average, they offer up these apologies much more often to strangers (22% of the time) than to romantic partners (11%) or family members (7%). The only folks we apologize to more? Friends (46%).
Men and women have different approaches and different expectations when it comes to acts of contrition.
Conventional wisdom says women apologize too much, and men don’t apologize often enough. Women are good at nurturing relationships, the thinking goes, while men are too egotistical to say they’re sorry or have a different take on social graces. Yet there’s no proof that women are better than men at apologizing—they just do it more often, sometimes for inconsequential offenses.
Two small studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, published last month by the journal Psychological Science, indicate men are just as willing as women to apologize if they think they’ve done something wrong. Men just have a different idea of what defines “something wrong.”
In the first study, 66 men and women kept daily diaries and recorded each time they committed—or were on the receiving end—of an offense. They also noted whether an apology was issued. The outcome: Women were offended more often, and they offered more apologies for their own behavior. Yet men were just as likely as women to apologize if they believed they’d done something wrong.
In the second study, 120 subjects imagined committing offenses, from being rude to a friend to inconveniencing someone they live with. The men said they would apologize less frequently. The researchers concluded the men had a higher threshold for what they found offensive. “We don’t think that women are too sensitive or that men are insensitive,” says Karina Schumann, one of the study’s authors. “We just know that women are more sensitive.”
And when men actually apologize, do they know why? Apparently not.
“To be honest, men never—well, almost never—have any idea what we are apologizing for,” says Mark Stevens, 63, chief executive of MSCO, a Rye Brook, N.Y., marketing consulting firm.
Mr. Stevens says during his 35-year marriage he has sincerely apologized to his wife, Carol, just five times—but has said he’s sorry an additional 3,500 times. He calls these mea culpas “fraudulent apologies.” They go something like this: “I don’t know why you’re unhappy, but I’m sorry.”
So here we have 186 Canadian men and women who are experiencing some kind of disconnect when it comes to apologies, and several people interviewed by Bernstein (two from NY, one from Florida) seem to agree. But are we seeing anything other than stereotypes laid out in this piece? I can’t speak for the two Canadian studies—perhaps they have more content. Yes, we all know that men and women have different approaches to apologies, and a strong, silent type such as Jethro Gibbs (NCIS) can quote an even stronger, more silent predecessor (Nathan Brittles, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) with his classic comment, “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness.” But why? Perhaps Deborah Tannen has written her numerous works in vain. Tannen tells us that it is a matter of different linguistic styles: A man, having grown up playing games with groups of other boys where the main objective is to be top dog, can’t afford to be perceived as being one-down, especially if it is in a business setting. Women, on the other hand, have had a few close girlfriends growing up, and a semblance of equality (if not actual equality) must be present in most of their games. The friendship must be maintained, almost no matter what, and an apology isn’t viewed as “giving in,” but as a way to smooth over the rough spots. (And Tannen is not being judgmental here—she is trying to describe it the way she sees it.)
That being said, there is an additional element that the Canadian studies apparently don’t address at all (or else Bernstein didn’t think to mention it): Tannen emphasizes that expressions of sympathy, extended by women, are often mistaken for apologies by men. If I remember correctly, she analyzes such statements in her book Talking from 9 to 5: If a woman, in the workplace, wants to express her sympathy to a male co-worker, employee, or boss, she might say, “I’m sorry you’ve had such a tough time.” She wants to show her empathy, but he hears it as an apology, and responds, “It’s not your fault.” And she is left confused, because she didn’t think it was her fault, either!
As a woman working in a highly male-dominated field for the past 30+ years I can absolutely attest to the reality of such exchanges, in a number of languages and on two continents. And if they count as female apologies, although they weren’t intended as such, it’s no wonder that women are perceived as apologizing far more frequently than men…I’m really sorry to see that we seem to have to reinvent the gender analysis wheel every 20 years or so. And that’s not an apology!