Do Women Really Say Sorry All The Time?

Sorry, but it's not actually the case.Illustration by Jayde Perkin

Do Women Really Say Sorry All The Time?

by Chemmie Squier |
Published on

Women say sorry too much. At least, that’s the general consensus on the topic of women and language right now. If you want proof, Google it and you’ll find an abundance of articles about it, most of them arguing along the lines of ‘women need to stop saying sorry too much’, ’why do women apologise more than men’, and so forth. The argument is clear: women are undermining themselves in their speech.

The ‘Just Not Sorry’ Google Chrome Extension, which has 38,678 users to date, appeared earlier this year, giving more impetus to the debate. This is an email add-on which underlines words like ‘sorry’, ‘just’ and ‘I think’ in an email before it’s sent – the idea being that this kind of language ‘undermines’ what the sender is saying. The sender is given an explanation too, telling them why this word undermines what they’re trying to get across. For example, one note regarding the word 'just' comes from Tara Mohr, one of the makers of the app, and states ‘”just” demeans what you have to say. “Just” shrinks your power. Say goodbye to the justs’.

At first glance, the idea seems positive: Mohr and Sylvia Ann Hewlett are coming from a good place, right? They want women to be direct, assertive and sure of what they’re saying, and they believe that taking out what they think of as ‘self-undermining words and phrases’ will facilitate this.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the reality. This app, along with ‘helpful’ articles like ‘How To Say Sorry Without Saying Sorry’ is likely to be doing more harm than good to the relationship women have with language. Attributing a habit or a tendency to an entire gender is in itself problematic. Judith Baxter, emeritus professor of applied linguistics at Aston University, was keen to express this view when I spoke to her: ‘I think what is often missed in discussions like this is who we are, our identities,’ she told me. ‘They’re made up of so many different elements that there’s probably as many differences between women as there are similarities.’ To say simplistically that women apologise more than men and this is bad because of X, Y and Z, does contextual and social differences a huge disservice, in fact, it almost entirely forgets them, because every situation and every person is so different.

The word itself is complex and deserves the benefit of context. It’s polysemous so it’s meaning depends on the context in which it’s used, and over time the actual meaning of the word and how people use it, has changed. ‘At first someone who was “sorry” was distressed or mournful, but the word has been used in a somewhat weaker sense - to express apology - for at least 800 years,’ Henry Hitchings author of Sorry! The English And Their Manners, explained. ‘It is only as recently as the middle of the nineteenth century that people started to say the word “sorry” on its own rather than saying “I am sorry”.’

If people are using sorry in various instances, and there’s no longer a meaning in which it is universally understood, it's near on impossible to draw conclusions on women using it being a negative thing. We use ‘sorry’ and ‘pardon’ and ‘excuse me’ interchangeably, sometimes it’s sarcastic: ‘sorry, you did what?’, and sometimes we truly are expressing regret for an action. Superfluous apologies – defined as ‘expressions of regret for an undesirable circumstance for which the apologiser is clearly not responsible’, like the weather or bad traffic – were actually found to increase the recipients trust of the apologiser in a study by a Harvard Business School. Proof that apologies can actually be an effective relationship building tool. As Deborah Cameron, professor of language and communications at University of Oxford, told me, ‘claims about women saying “sorry” more aren't very meaningful until we've separated out the 'real' apologies from the ones which are more like #sorrynotsorry’. When it comes to apologies, context is absolutely key and a simple app isn’t equipped to gage that.

Society, it seems, has turbulent relationship with women in the work place. Women are still plagued by societal stereotypes, whether we like it or not: we’re meant to be motherly, nurturing, and any attempt at assertion is often perceived as aggressively masculine. People have a hard time accepting women in a position of power without in some way compromising what they believe to be their ‘femininity’. Research by Baxter has shown this, too. She found a tendency for women to use the mechanism of ‘double voicing’ in a corporate environment. This is when a person anticipates criticism from others by building it into what they’re saying. For example ‘I know this might sound stupid but…’ ‘In any professional or work context where women are progressing up the career ladder, I think women are deliberately making themselves seem less threatening to men,’ Baxter explained. Hence the need to caveat something that could be perceived as direct or aggressive. The problem here then, is not that women are saying sorry, but the fact that they feel like they have to in order to be accepted and successful in the work place.

Interestingly, there’s actually no solid evidence proving that women apologise more than men: it's simply perceived that they do. In an interview with Business Insider, Robin Lakoff, professor emerita of linguistics at the University of California, attempted to explain why this is. ‘We listen much more closely to women. We're more critical when we listen. We form different kinds of opinions. And so we really don't know accurately whether women are doing these things more than men.’ She went on to say that women were still perceived as ‘others’ too, so by default, all their actions are open to critique.

One study that’s often cited as proof that women apologise more, found that women reported that they offered more apologies in daily life than the men did. They also reported committing more ‘offenses’, suggesting that men apologise less because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour. Again, this shows the impact of societal expectation – women are expect to be more sympathetic and sensitive to situations and respond accordingly, and if they don't there must be something wrong.

Cameron referenced a New Zealand study which found that men apologised to women about as frequently as women apologised to men however ‘Cross-gender apologies were more frequent than men-to-men ones and less frequent than woman-to-woman ones,’ she explained. This means that the over all male 'sorry count' is brought down because men aren't apologising to other men. ‘I'd say the really interesting question here is not why women apologise so much, it's why men avoid apologising to one another - that's the situation that's really out of line with the general pattern.’ This, she told me, is something they don’t have an answer to. Could this be a way to protect masculinity, because there seems to be a widespread belief that apologising is somehow weak?

This seems counterintuitive. There is a lot of strength in using the word in its purest form and telling someone ‘I am sorry’. Sir Elton John knows its the hardest word. Admitting a fault and taking the responsibility for something you’ve caused is the original bravery. But perhaps, somewhere a long the line, we’ve lost that?

Simply being polite shouldn't be shunned either. Where’s the weakness in not wanting to interrupt someone, to show someone you value their opinion before giving your own, by admitting you may not be the best person to comment on a situation? Oh yeah, there isn’t any. Cameron gives a good example on her blog, using an email she received would have looked had the writer (male, as it would happen) left out the ‘self-undermining’ phrases. The result? Rude and blunt. Courtesies like these in language are important, they stimulate social connections and make us more likeable.

Of course, there is a balance to be struck here and context is key. There is value in presenting your point of view in a meeting, without caveating it with an out of place 'sorry'. But if you’re about to present said view and interrupt someone, that’s not demeaning to your authority. If you’re late to an event, you apologise.That’s called being socially aware. It’s called being polite.

‘I worry about an app that is telling all women that they mustn’t behave in certain ways. If it’s giving guidance, fine, but my worry is if women are being told they’re deficient in the way that they use language,’ Baxter explains. And it’s exactly that isn’t it? It’s time to take a step back from thinking about what women should and shouldn’t do, and consider the argument that this call to boycott 'sorry' is actually demeaning to women. We’re caught between a rock and a hard place – too ‘soft’ and we’re not taken seriously, too ‘direct' and we’re aggressive and herein lies the problem; in our social constructs of how genders are expected to behave. As Cameron points out, ‘what’s really destructive and undermining to women is not their way of speaking but the constant criticism to which their speech is subjected.’ It’s got to the point where we now feel the need to apologise. For apologising. And that is a really sorry state of affairs.

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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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