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.