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Never Apologize; It’s a Sign of Weakness–? November 1, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Gender.
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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!



1. Asur - November 4, 2010

Eh, I’m not sure you have it right with:

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.”

That’s not a mistake in interpretation (which would be hard to make…), rather the man in your example is issuing a chiding statement. He understands her intent; the inappropriateness of his reply mirrors his feelings toward her utterance while allowing him to avoid hurting her own feelings, which he does not want to do.

Outward appreciation for her empathy implies that he needs it, which implies that he is unable to adequately deal with whatever the underlying context happens to be.

2. Nina Rosenstand - November 5, 2010

Good point! But I was paraphrasing Deborah Tannen there, and I think I did a loyal interpretation of her view. But you could also be right, and she could be wrong–that inability to deal with sympathy can come across as a sort of inappropriate forgiveness (if I understood you correctly).

Asur - November 6, 2010

Ah, my apologies, I had interpreted the paraphrase to be representative of your own views…and you did understand me correctly.

I wonder, though, if the rejection of sympathy is actually equivalent to the inability to deal with sympathy…in my analysis of Tannen’s example, the man’s response is predicated on the notion that his social status will be in some way lessened if he displays gratitude for sympathy (I should point out that gender of the source of that sympathy would be irrelevant); if that’s actually a true notion, then rejection would constitute an adroit means of dealing with sympathy rather than an inability to do so.

Given that machismo is not dead in every workplace, the above notion might be contextually false but it might also be contextually true. Whether or not it ought to be true, though, is presumably much more clear-cut.

3. Paul J. Moloney - November 6, 2010

An apology is a sign of weakness if a man is sexist. A sincere apology to a woman would be an admission that sexism is wrong. If a man admits that sexism is wrong then he would have to change his lifestyle and admit that he has been wrong. This takes courage. If a man does not have courage then he cannot be considered virtuous. If sexist men have no courage then sexism must be a form of cowardice.

It has been my experience that the only person who has enlightened me in regards to my sexism has been a woman. If this woman had not had the courage to enlighten me then I would have had never tried to pursue a non-sexist course. If I admit to my sexism, I have to credit the woman who gave me the courage to do so. Also, if I admit to my sexism, I also have to admit to the fact that a woman had the courage and intelligence that I did not have. If she did not have the intelligence, I would have had never been enlightened. We are not enlightened by ignorant people.

Also, it seems better to change one’s behavior without apologizing then to apologize without changing one’s behavior, but the apology seems to be the beginning of verbal communication. It seems unlikely that one can have a relationship without verbal communication. If there is no relationship then sexism remains despite a million apologies.

4. Nathan Seither - November 29, 2010

A bit trivial to think we are reinventing the gender wheel when we have made something completely different, a square or maybe a octagon for that matter. An octagon would at least work to some degree in this situation. Its more than just an apology I fear but the constant battle genders have amongst themselves since the beginning of time. We are creatures of dominance. In any form of relationship we try to overcome the other. This is shown in our own corporate world. For years it was a mans world that was tooth and nail to the top. Years later throw a woman in the mix and now you have chaos. Only now do I think the sexism fallout has left us with a bad taste in our mouths.
Like the idea of slavery, we have done away with it but not one person can honestly say it is abolished. It has left scars on us that we must deal with. The fact that a man feels less masculine do to a sincere apology from a woman could be the dominating nature of our being or the fallout of a masculine world. I believe women are a bit more creative in the usage of apologizing. For example a woman can use apologies to disrespect a man. When a bitter ex-girlfriend hears about your newly failed relationship she apologizes to your face while her heart is thrilled with scowling joy, hoping you will take her back so she can blissfully say no, probably followed with another “sincere” apology. A handshake used to mean something at one point in time, so did an apology. Although this is quite deceptive I can only sit back and laugh with respect to the creativity. We are different and although do not understand women at times I respect that.
Is it sexism to understand we are different? No, it is not. To not respect each other would be the true travesty. Yes I may not understand why a female would apologize but to say they are week is absurd. The nature of mankind reveals much and by acknowledging that we have the natural tendencies to dominate those around us, that revelation may perhaps provide the stepping stone to establishing understanding even amongst the work place. The stepping stone lies within your standard, if its waivers to the left or to the right then you are left wanting. It must be absolute.

5. Emily Johnson - December 5, 2010

In response to this post and the studies, I would be curious to see where gender identification plays in the apology spectrum. They are polarizing male and female sex but it would be interesting to see if these typical characteristics of the sex ever play into the characteristics of their gender identity. Is it an innate characteristic or a learned characteristic?

My own personal experience with apologies is skewed. For myself, I have always noticed that I am a rather polite and cordial person and I almost feel that it’s a rarity among my social circle. With this comes apologies when I feel that I have done something wrong to someone, but I believe my politeness sometimes is exacerbated by what I think is wrong or unjust and what others might just brush off. I will apologize for things that later I find meaningless, even if it’s that very next moment. This has grown to be an irritating habit of mine perhaps because I notice that our society is almost the opposite extreme; where people have a tendency to exacerbate their rudeness. I don’t hear apologies hardly at all from people unless it is a truely offensive act.

Often times, I have sat down to talk with someone (typically a friend) and somehow the cell phone and text messages appear in our conversation. If I ever text while talking with someone [which is rare], at least I recognize that it’s rude and apologize. Although, the fact that I would do that does not give general concern to if it actually was offensive to that person or not.

6. Kristina- Phil 125 - December 5, 2010

In some ways, I do believe apologizing is a sign of weakness. When people apologize incessantly it is usually a good indicator of a insecure personality. If people are more confident in their decisions, they tend to apologize less. This may be a reason why women apologize more than men. In my experiences, men have more dominant personalities and tend to be more secure with themselves. Women on the other hand don’t always say what they feel because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Which is also the reason why women tend to apologize more often then men. Women are a more caring and cautious type than their counterparts.
I admit to apologizing too frequently to people as well. Well, to certain people. The people I care about the most, I probably over apologize to even without reason. I just never want to hurt my closest friends and family and sometimes feel like saying “sorry” makes everything better. In reality, this probably not true. Apologizing too much can annoy people, and I found this out the hard way!! HAHA.

7. Kendall H., Mesa Phil 125 fall 2010 - December 8, 2010

I agree that in general, men say “sorry” less than women. However, in my opinion, men and women actually apologize with about the same frequency. In my experience with my current girlfriend, I’ve noticed that I apologize more than my girlfriend, but she says “I’m sorry” more often, without it necessarily being a true apology.

My observations tend to fall in line with the article’s statements, which is to say that I agree that women more readily express their empathy, which is sometimes perceived as an apology. On the other hand, I think that as men age, they become more able to express emotions.

8. niki novak - December 8, 2010

I used to apologize a lot! Now is that because I am a female, or because I was raised to be courteous, or perhaps because I used to be insecure? I think it has more to do with the latter two.In my life experience, I havent noticed a trend of males apologizing less frequently then females. I have noticed more insecure people apologizing more often however, those people where male and females.I do know that statistically women suffer from depression more often then men, and if its safe to tag that with self esteem, then I guess I could see women apologizing more than men. Which further supports my piont of insecurity
being a reason other than politeness and empathy for excessive ‘im sorries’in women versus men as shown in this study.

9. Jin N - December 8, 2010

My take is this: I find it easy enough on a personal level to see the perspective of this study. However, perhaps the answer is far less mysterious. It could very well be amounted to widespread instances of parents not teaching their children matters of tact. Instead, many are raised to associate a offenses with a requited apologies rather than the discernment of what constitutes an an acceptable offense, unacceptable offenses, and differences of opinion (a lot of serious disagreements seem to stem from these).

10. Shellie Harrison - March 17, 2012

Well the opposite of insecure would be over-secure, thinking we don’t need to apologize because we’re right. However, apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean we are wrong, it just means that we regret that things happened the way it did. No right, no wrong. Just regret for the situation/life being unfair and/or unfortunate and/or unaware at the time, and are now aware so we feel regretful. Unintentional is not always caused by someone doing something wrong, because a person can make the best decision given their current knowledge which would be a correct decision, but then later learn a more effective way and regret that the previous way although right at the time would now not be the correct way to deal with the situation given the newly gained knowledge and/or awareness.

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