Are Women Who Say “Sorry” Weaker?

Who apologizes more, men or women?

According to a highly circulated study from 2010, which has resurfaced recently in a post on Jezebel, the answer is women:

Researchers analyzed the number of self-reported offences and apologies made by 66 subjects over a 12-day period. And yes, they confirmed women consistently apologized more times than men did. But they also found that women report more offenses than men.

But this raises another question: Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Some feminists, like the writer at Jezebel, think it’s bad. In her post, which is titled “Stop Apologizing! Why Are Women So ‘Sorry’ All the Time?” she writes:

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.

The general idea is that apologizing and being grateful, by putting women in an inferior and dependent position, are bad because they are signs of weakness. Anything that reveals women to be weaker than men is, furthermore, troubling because women should feel as empowered as feminists presume men do on these matters (which may be a faulty assumption anyway).

But there are is a major problem with this line of reasoning. Being grateful and being sorry are not at all signs of weakness–they are signs of strength. In fact, one of the most important books published in psychology in the last ten years, the Character Strengths and Virtues handbook by Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, lists gratitude as a strength.

(The handbook lists a total of twenty-four strengths that appear cross-culturally and have been valued throughout history. It is meant to assess and classify the human sanities–and promote human flourishing–the way the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is used to diagnosis mental disorders.)

With the publication of the handbook, an entire body of psychological research has emerged about the strengths that points to how important gratitude is. Gratitude, which is a strength that indeed more women than men report having, is associated with greater well-being. Not only is it correlated with increased life satisfaction, but it is also connected to increased satisfaction at work (the other strengths associated with work satisfaction are curiosity, zest, hope, and spirituality). Gratitude is also one of the most prevalent strengths across the world population. The most commonly reported strengths worldwide in descending order: kindness, fairness, honesty, gratitude, and judgment.

So gratitude, far from being a weakness, is one of the great human strengths.

I think the same could be said for saying sorry (though the character strengths manual does not list apologizing as a strength, it does list forgiveness as one). Over at Slate, writer Amanda Hess responded to the Jezebel post in a piece called, “I’m Sorry, but I’m Not Going To Stop Apologizing.” Hess argues:

And treating others with empathy doesn’t equal devaluing ourselves. Yoko Hosoi, a professor at Tokyo University, describes the “apology-forgiveness culture” among men and women in Japan as “an ingrained cultural heritage, which serves to make a harmonious, peace-oriented society”—not to lay blame or establish hierarchies. Saying “I’m sorry” is a cultural thing. Often, it’s a positive one. And yet 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. Actually, many of them already are. Smith cites a group of studies that found that both men and women apologize more to women than they do to men. These men and women are adapting to each other’s vocal styles, not forging the clear-cut gender hierarchy Polewaczyk describes.

I completely agree with this analysis, and would just add that apologizing, when the occasion calls for it, is not only a powerful social lubricant, but it is actually a sign of strength. Like being grateful, saying sorry is based on the idea of connection and relationship. In the case of gratitude, for instance, someone did something for you that you’re grateful for, and that act connects you two to each other. In the case of apologizing, you may have done something wrong that affected someone else negatively, so you say you are sorry to make amends and repair the bonds of your friendship.

So in this context of a relationship, saying sorry requires you to put yourself below someone else. To admit that you did something wrong and feel bad about it also makes yourself completely vulnerable, vulnerable to the other person and his judgement of you. Will he forgive you? Or will he not? But for exactly these reasons, saying sorry is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of strength. Apologizing is hard and you have to be pretty secure about who you are to put yourself out there like that. Apologizing requires courage. So does, by the way, saying thank you.

If women are saying “sorry” and “thank you” more than men, maybe we should be talking about how courageous they are rather than how weak they are. And maybe, rather than encouraging women to act more like men in these two domains, we should be encouraging everyone to say, in the appropriate circumstances, “thank you” and “sorry” more.

  1. Joan of Ark La Tex

    I have been in business most of my career. “Sorry” and “Thank You” are 2 extremely powerful terms especially when used face to face. Every time my co-workers or me make a mistake and I face the angry customer face to face to apologize sincerely, it is always viewed as courage, not weakness. That doesn’t mean they let me get away with the consequences, it only means they continue to trust me. 

  2. flownover

    Joan is a saint, but she is also from the Orient where certain human qualities are valued more than in the west . Humility being one of them.

    I was going to jokingly answer “only rarely are they weaker , as rarely as they say I’m sorry”. 

    But seeing Joan post first, realized that this is going to be a woman’s comment thread ,except for those among us who know (as we say here in the flyover) that “when mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy” . And we are all genuflecting and singing sorrowful dirges until the storm passes.

    I’m sorry this took so long. 

  3. Joan of Ark La Tex
    flownover: Joan is a saint, but she is also from the Orient where certain human qualities are valued more than in the west . Humility being one of them.

    Not a saint, just doing what a woman has to do. :D 

    Flown, most of my customers I am talking about above were Europeans and Americans. That’s why they bother to yell at me. Asian customers are more all or nothing, usually they won’t embarrass me by telling me something is wrong, they just find another alternative to drop me. Dealing with Asians is very different from dealing with the west. 

  4. Indaba

    There are two worlds and the world of work is different from the world of home, friends, schools and community.

    At work, it is more ironed out and legal unless you are in early stage and small business mode. Once you hit a more corporate environment, there is no room for I’m sorry if someone bumps into you.

    Like Joan says, if you make a mistake, sure, say I apologize. Don’t go for the more casual I’m sorry.

    As a woman in finance, And as James Brown sings, it’s a man’s world. Not that the men in my company are being mean or are rude, it’s just that they set the culture.

    the terrible thing is that I see women doing this I’m sorry as they walk around and it maes them seem small and weak to me. I think I have to protect them. so if I think that, what do the men think? I’ve been working too long!

    that woukd be a great tactic for negotiations, walk around apologizing.

  5. She

    Saying “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize,” is a wonderful thing as long as it includes the recognition that 1) you’ve wronged someone and 2) you will try not to repeat the bad behavior

    However, these phrases:

    • I’m sorry to interrupt you, but . . .

    • I’m sorry to ask you this, but . . . 
    • I’m sorry to call this late at night, but . . .
    • I’m sorry to call at 4:25 on Friday afternoon with this computer problem, but . . .

    are meaningless.  You’re not sorry at all.  You just want me to say, “I don’t mind!  Ask me more!  Call me later!  Be a pest!

    Likewise:

    • I hate to interrupt you, but . . .

    • I hate to ask you this, but . . . 
    • I hate to call this late at night, but . . .
    • I hate to call at 4:25 on Friday afternoon with this computer problem, but . . .

    I’m sorry, but I don’t think ‘sorry’ means ‘sorry’ when you can substitute the word ‘hate’ and have your words mean the same thing..

    These are the kind of meaningless ‘I’m sorrys’ that drive me up the wall.  Unfortunately, I think most of them are committed by women.

  6. flownover
    Indaba: 

    Like Joan says, if you make a mistake, sure, say I apologize. Don’t go for the more casual I’m sorry.

    that woukd be a great tactic for negotiations, walk around apologizing. · 13 minutes ago

    I’m sorry but we can’t pay you that much.

    I’m sorry but the legal fees will be borne by your company .

    I’m sorry that America didn’t colonize any countries , but did participate in a slavery program that was invented by another country.

    I’m sorry but my lack of interest in your victimhood doesn’t mean I’m racist . 

    I’m sorry but I can’t imagine that children will thrive in an atmosphere of neglect.

    I’m sorry but values are the guiding lights of life, not fame or notoriety that might earn you the Warholian 15.

  7. Whiskey Sam

    Love means never having to say you’re sorry.

  8. Joan of Ark La Tex
    Whiskey Sam: Love means never having to say you’re sorry. · 16 minutes ago

    I nearly choked to death with my shrimp dinner reading this. 

  9. Joan of Ark La Tex
    Indaba:

    the terrible thing is that I see women doing this I’m sorry as they walk around and it maes them seem small and weak to me. 

    yeap, don’t act cute either. Do it because it is the right thing to do, not to manipulate.

  10. Jeff Schulte
    Whiskey Sam: Love means never having to say you’re sorry. · 12 hours ago

    I can’t stand this quote from that silly cartoon.  I can count on one hand the number of times my wife has said sorry.  When called on it, she always refers to this aggravating line.  I emphatically believe the opposite.  Love means that you want to say you are sorry and ask forgiveness.

  11. Dave Roy
    Joan of Ark La Tex

    Indaba:

    the terrible thing is that I see women doing this I’m sorry as they walk around and it maes them seem small and weak to me. 

    yeap, don’t act cute either. Do it because it is the right thing to do, not to manipulate. · 36 minutes ago

    I think that’s the most important thing: whether it’s the appropriate time and place for it.

    Do you apologize for *everything*, even if maybe it might not be your fault? Then there’s a problem.

    A sincere apology for something that you know was wrong is certainly a powerful and strengthening force.

    Apologizing all the time for everything truly does look weak.

    Or, as Joan says, manipulative.

  12. Fricosis Guy

    When I’m wrong I make it a point to admit it, ask for forgiveness, and make amends as best I can.  I avoid “sorry” or “apologize” these days… just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore.

  13. Astonishing

    Co-workers who go around apologizing all the time are bothersome. Oftentimes it’s passive-aggressive behavoir designed  to suck you into their sorryfest dramas.

    Nothing ever gets done perfectly, so if someone spills the gravy, I figure he didn’t do it on purpose and already is sorry. The apology ceremony can be uncomfortable, even demeaning, for the apologizer and the apologizee. The truly polite thing is to pretend not to notice garden-variety screw-ups.

    But if you really are sorry, the best way to show it is by fixing your screw-up as best you can and by trying not to do it again.

    And what if someone thinks he deserves an apology, but the other person doesn’t think he should apologize? It can turn a triviality into an overblown dispute.

    How about we just assume nobody really intends to hurt anybody else’s feelings and that anybody can have a bad day? We’re on the same team.  Let’s get on with the task at hand.

    If you go around apologizing all the time at work, people will start to think you’re a screw-up,  . . . and they’ll be right.

  14. Whiskey Sam
    Jeff Schulte

    Whiskey Sam: Love means never having to say you’re sorry. · 12 hours ago

    I can’t stand this quote from that silly cartoon.  I can count on one hand the number of times my wife has said sorry.  When called on it, she always refers to this aggravating line.  I emphatically believe the opposite.  Love means that you want to say you are sorry and ask forgiveness. · 20 minutes ago

    Of course it’s nonsense; that’s the joke.

  15. Merina Smith

    Joan, your story is hilarious!

    When a wrong really has been committed, a sincere apology allows everyone to move on, IMHO.  But I agree that there are many situations where everyone knows bad wasn’t intended, and then it is better to just pretend it didn’t happen.  You can’t do that when mistakes are chronic, but if it’s the learning curve, it makes sense to be generous. 

    I’m really sorry  to say it, and I hate  to think it is true, and I aopologize  to women readers for saying so, but I’ve observed that  while women issue mea culpas more readily, in general they also take offense far more easily and sure can hold a grudge.  I include myself in this indictment.  I have to really work on this, because holding grudges and taking offense can ruin your life.  Gratitude, forgiveness and a sense of humor are the best defense, for me anyway. 

     PS  Who came up with that dumb line that love means never saying you’re sorry?

  16. Whiskey Sam
    Joan of Ark La Tex

    Whiskey Sam: Love means never having to say you’re sorry. · 16 minutes ago

    I nearly choked to death with my shrimp dinner reading this.  · 1 hour ago

    I couldn’t resist!

  17. John Murdoch

    I’ve been a church deacon–I’ve worked with women who have been abused, mentally, physically, and sexually. Some old, some young, some tall, some short–but every single one of them, regardless of what had happened (and for how long) was a scared little bunny rabbit that reflexively blurted “I’m sorry!” when anything happened.

    I theorize that there’s a chicken-and-egg thing here: was it the scared little bunny rabbit personality that attracted the thug/chickenhawk/pervert/rapist in the first place?

    But oh, yeah–the streets are filled with scarred, scared, timid women who reflexively blurt “I’m sorry!” all the time. And it’s not a sign of courage or strength.

  18. Jordan Wiegand

    The article undermines itself with the words “self reported,” this is more like “collected anecdotes,” which are not data.  No researcher worth his credentials would take a collection of self-reported accounts and deem to analyze them.

    And besides that, an apology is an indicator of weakness or fault.  The only strength is displayed in the self correction.  But apologizes are mere words until they are backed up with action.  One ought to only apologize when he has actually done something wrong, and in those instances the apologizes should be succinct and clear, and generally not done in a public setting.

  19. Not JMR

    I’ve had the misfortune of stumbling onto a Jezbel article or two in my day, and I can say with confidence that several–perhaps all–Jezebel editresses are mentally ill.

  20. Joan of Ark La Tex

    Just thought of this funny experience I had. Once, I was ordered by my boss from headquarters to pay a visit to our Thai supplier for sending us inferior goods. His instruction was specifically to “bang table, turn it if necessary”, do whatever it takes to get a refund. I found myself in the middle of nowhere a few hundred miles from the Bangkok airport. Dressed in overalls, ready to demand fairness and expecting overflow of apologies. After too much small talk, I brought up the subject. He interrupted me with a phone call in thai ( which I know nothing). Next, he politely listened to my complaints. Then, out of nowhere, I heard some commotion outside his office building up. He politely told me to duck below the table while he settled ” the problem”. I saw him pulled a gun from his drawer, went outside, fire a few rounds. Silence followed. He returned with his gun still in his hand and asked me ” yeah, you were saying?”. Man manipulates to get out of apologizing too.