Photo: Photo: Getty
In the past week or so I have apologised profusely to the following: my boyfriend when I spilt leather dye on the carpet (side note, wearing your new leather trousers in the shower to stretch them really does work), my friend because I was, as ever, running desperately late for our catch-up and the man that I accidentally cut in front of in the cafeteria line. I have been known to apologise to mannequins when I bump into them and wait staff when they get my order wrong. Apparently it is because I am a woman and therefore prone to apologise. Terribly sorry about that.
In a recent article for Jezebel the case for women apologising less was put forward. Women, wrote Karyn Polewaczyk after pondering this 2010 study that found women do indeed apologise more than men, have been programmed to feel like they’re taking up too much space. They must therefore atone for it.
“While it's easy to chart the number of times someone apologized during a scientifically-controlled study, I don't think women are genetically programmed to act like this, or that men have a "higher threshold" for offensive behavior. I think it's that women are expected to be exceptionally grateful for the crumbs tossed our way—and so we show our gratitude by cushioning our wants with a series of, "I know this is asking a lot, but...", "I hate to ask, but could you..." and "I might sound like an idiot for wondering, but..."-isms.”
Instead writes Polewaczyk, women should be more unapologetic, they should be unafraid of what they want and how they’re going to get it.
“Call me old fashioned—there I go with the gender stereotypes again!—but I think it's time we ditch our guilt complexes and inner Pollyannas.”
But, as Amanda Hess pointed out in Slate, even if women do apologise more than men, why is this automatically considered to be a bad thing?
“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,” writes Hess.
Probably, as social psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at University of Queensland, Fiona Barlow points out, because the reasons behind why women may feel the need to apologise are not simple.
“Women are conditioned from very early to be the peace makers,” says Barlow.
This propensity toward pacifying creates a divided self for women. As Barlow explains,
“Women are often placed in a very tricky situation one hand some of the things that we do as women are perceived as weak. For example female bosses tend to give qualified direction. Instead of saying do this, they will say please if isn’t any trouble, could you maybe think about doing X."
“Now when anyone asks someone to do something in this qualified way it is perceived as being less powerful, less dominant, less competent. Yet what comes across as powerful and high status from a man’s mouth comes across or is interpreted as bitchy and unpleasant from women," Barlow says.
These interactions are something that Dr Margaret Byrne principle consultant at change management consultancy UGM Consulting explored in her doctoral research. After analysing around 150 hours of footage of men and women in regular everyday scenarios in 26 professional workplaces, Byrne found that 95% of the time, men and women were fairly similar in the way that they spoke. The variations occured when women were more polite than men, and Byrne includes apologetic tones in that assessment.
"Whether they were useful [apologies], well that depends on the context," says Byrne.
What Byrne's research found was that even when women did use apologies and couched their interactions in politeness, they were not powerless or ineffectual. In fact, often, it was the opposite.
"What I found quite often was that women would use these sorts of strategies that identified with the characteristics of women’s talk that were wrongly called powerless ... instead they were a powerful tool for when they wanted to get collaboration, or to draw other people out," says Byrne.
Empowering these 'soft' skills of empathy and the language it uses is something that Fiona Barlow also believes is happening.
“We’ve seen radical shifts in men and women’s roles over the last 50-100 years. And I think that continues to change,” says Barlow who believes that as things get better generally for women, so to will the restriction on how women can talk and interact with the world.
The idea that apologising, or over-apologising can diminish the status of the apologiser is one that Barlow says can be true. Especially when the apology is not really specific to a real transgression, or something properly awful.
“I suspect, though no research directly speaks to this that repeated apologies for minor offences takes away the impact of the apology and potentially does lower our opinion of the apologiser. And I think that it’s possible that constantly apologising sends a message to ourselves about who we are in the world, about what place we feel we deserve,” says Barlow.
Something that Margaret Byrne advocates in reading the need for an apology is to consider its context and the person to whom it is directed toward. This includes considering people's cultural background, generation, the office environment as well as gender. In a sense, she says, you have to adapt yourself to your environment, while still remaining authentic.
"Apologies are routine, they’re games that we play, rituals. If the other party doesn’t join in our ritual, if we expect an apology and we don't get one we’re left feeling flat ... you've got to look at the context of the apology and then decide what effect do I want to have," she says.
Overcoming the compulsion to apologise can be down to understanding the worth of a genuine apology and adjusting your behaviour accordingly.
As Barlow points out, an insincere apology is a very self-serving act. And there are a lot of bad, fairly selfish apologies out there. Take for example the time Rush Limbaugh apologised to Sandra Fluke for calling her a slut, or just about any public figure that is sorry that you were offended by their comments.
A real apology for a real transgression, says Barlow, is multi-faceted.
“Apologies are a really tricky thing. Very often we do things wrong. We slip up and make mistakes. We often feel sincerely and deeply apologetic for something that we’ve done. For an apology to be most effective we need to do a couple of things – show that we understand the transgression, that we empathise or again understand the pain that it has caused, that we are clearly and transparently sincere in our grief and that we make some sort of amends or concrete plans to make amends.”
It is also worth remembering, as Amanda Hess pointed out in Slate, the power in considering the feelings and needs of your fellow person.
“Treating others with empathy doesn’t equal devaluing ourselves," she writes.
And that is absolutely nothing to be sorry about.