The Apology Gap: Do Women Apologize Too Much or Men Too Little?

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Amber Hathaway

I am a physics graduate student, campus organizer, aspiring horror writer, crafter, and amateur genealogist from Maine

In contemporary American society, there is a significant apology gap between women and men, with men’s infrequent apologizing viewed as the norm and women’s apology rates perceived as excessive. Women’s frequent apologizing has served as fuel for satire and everywhere from career advice columns to feminist friendly sites have encouraged women to cut back on their apologies. However, a recent opinion piece on elle.com suggests that perhaps it is men, rather than women, who have an issue with apologies.

It’s worth considering what the relative effects are of over-apologizing compared to under-apologizing. If one apologizes frequently, some might argue that it makes others see them as unconfident or accident prone or something like that, but those negative associations are byproducts of living in a society which views minimal apologizing as the desired outcome. The other day while teaching lab I mumbled an apology to the student I was speaking to when I bumped into an unoccupied stool. It was an automatic response; by the time I realized that I had knocked into an inanimate object rather than my student, the words were already out of my mouth. The incident was mildly embarrassing to me, but it did not adversely affect anyone else. However, failing to apologize when an affected party thinks an apology is warranted can have a negative effect on interpersonal relationships and institutions alike.

Using Sean Spicer’s Holocaust flub and the United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz’s insensitive response to the airlines’ assault of a passenger, Elle writer Sady Doyle demonstrates how men’s failure to apologize can worsen a bad situation. In both cases, the men in question should have owned up to their mistakes, but Spicer dug his heels in, adding clarifications that only furthered the offensiveness of his initial remark while Munoz gave a classic non-apology. Particularly in the case of United Airlines, even a sincere apology would not have mitigated the harm the company had caused, but Munoz’s response reflected a lack of concern for the safety of passengers, which increased the public’s outrage. Many of us can probably think of smaller scale instances in our own lives in which the absence of an apology has placed a strain on a relationship, even if only temporarily.

Why do men have such a difficult time apologizing? Are they simply less conscientious than women? According to a 2010 study, which followed 66 participants over a 12-day period, women and men were about equally likely to apologize when they felt they had done something wrong. The discrepancy lies in the perception of what is harmful; women viewed certain behaviors as offensive that men did not. In a second study, 120 participants were asked questions about three transgressions. Women rated each one as more severe than men did. The issue, then, is that men are unable or unwilling to recognize when they’ve done something that women find worthy of an apology.

This divide is perpetuated by popular media. We’ve probably all seen a show or movie where a man does something that he sees as innocuous and then the woman with whom he was interacting becomes upset, which seems to him to be for no reason. As the audience, we’re generally expected to sympathize with the man, but should we? If someone is doing something that is hurtful to another person, instead of dismissing her feelings and declaring that women are so confusing, he should try and see things from her perspective. Even if he can’t understand why she’s upset, he has hurt someone and the most compassionate action would be to apologize and take what she’s said to heart.

However, there are some things women (and other marginalized groups) are conditioned to apologize for that do not require an apology. You should never feel the need to apologize for your existence, even if some might find it an inconvenience. You have a right to take up space in this world. If some guy doesn’t like dealing with women in the lab or boardroom and tries to make you feel guilty for being there, that’s his issue he needs to get over. If you do feel compelled to apologize in these situations, it’s probably a good habit to break. Apologizing to inanimate objects is unnecessary, and if it makes you feel embarrassed, then it doesn’t hurt to try to cut back on those apologies too.

Chiding women for apologizing too much is another iteration of the devaluation of things considered feminine like emotional responses. Women tend to be taught to be more attuned to the needs of others, which likely leads to their increased apology rate when compared to men. Men, on the other hand, are less likely to view their actions as harmful or erroneous, even when they are told by others that what they have said or done hurts. Instead of advising women to cut back on their apologies, perhaps we should be encouraging men to be more empathetic.