The Apologist

I’ve been reading an interesting opinion piece by my sister over on The Pool: Sorry, but people need to stop telling women they shouldn’t apologise. The background to this is the increasing recognition that apologising is a gendered phenomenon, with women doing far more of it than men, which has led to many declarations that women should cut back on the apologising habit. Ruth’s argument here is that the problem is not with women tending to apologise too much but with men tending to apologise too little. What we should actually be doing about the apology discrepancy, she argues, is expecting men to bring their apologising up to appropriate levels.

The various anti-apologising op-eds and think pieces often quote a 2010 study, which showed that the reason women say they are sorry more often than men is because they have a “lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour”. This finding tends to be framed by journalists as an example of female deficiency. But, really, isn’t a person with a “high threshold of what constitutes offensive behaviour” actually just another name for a dickhead?

Even for trivial matters, there are few things more grating than a social interaction containing a gaping apology-shaped hole… Saying sorry is a recognition that the time and feelings and convenience of another person are important.

Excellent points (say I without a trace of nepotism, natch), and I agree with this as far as it goes. Still… the implication seems to be that this is the only cause of the apology gap and that women in general typically have their apologising threshold pitched just right. I’m not so sure; I’ve certainly come across the phenomenon of overapologising, and my impression is that it is indeed a fairly gendered thing. (It’s also age-related, which is a whole other issue.)

Example from this same article; Ruth describes apologising to her agent every time she has to ‘bother’ him. I’m not an expert on how the whole agent/writer thing works, but I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb in guessing that the agent is making money out of this and that the things Ruth is ‘bothering’ him over are actual work-related things which he is getting paid to deal with. Routinely apologising for asking someone to do the job they’re being paid to do? That’s an apology too far, surely? When we apologise for asking for things that we actually are entitled to, we reinforce ideas that we should make ourselves lesser, use fewer resources, less space.

Of course, Ruth’s article also raises an interesting question; why, when we find that men and women are doing something differently, do we assume that the answer is to tell women to take responsibility for closing the discrepancy?

Any further thoughts?


  1. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    I’m leaning towards your view of things. Yes, men should apologize more, but I can’t disregard the fact that overapologizing is also a thing.
    Someone bumps into me on the street and I apologize to them, so I know what I’m talking about 🙂

  2. Siobhan says

    Any further thoughts?

    Has any similar study been attempted in any urban city in Anglo Canada, with our peculiar apology culture?

  3. blondeintokyo says

    I think we need to ask ourselves as a culture why we feel apologizing is a sign of weakness. I automatically apologize when I’m troubling someone not because I seems self as subordinate or inferior, but simply because it’s the polite thing to do. It shouldn’t matter if I’m paying this person, in as the case of the woman apologizing to her agent; and it shouldn’t matter if it’s only a small intrusion, as in asking someone to help you with something. If everyone were more thoughtful in regards to taking up other people’s time, society would be far more pleasant.

    I’ve lived in Japan for 24 years now, and they’ve got the apology thing right. It’s so much nicer when people are pleasant to each other instead of being demanding and entitled.

  4. Dr Sarah says

    I see it most at work, and it’s hugely an age-related thing as well; older people are much more likely to apologise for bothering the doctor. I always think that’s partly because they’re old enough to remember the time when health care wasn’t supplied as a tax-funded service; you had to pay for it. But maybe it’s more that they come from a culture where doctors were thought of as Important Busy People, rather than as public servants at everyone’s beck and call.

    But, yes, it is also something I see more among women than among men. Particularly the phenomenon of getting *really* apologetic. I mean, there’s a passing ‘Sorry to bother you, doctor’, and then there are the people who just *keep on* apologising and tying themselves up in knots over it, and they’re typically female.

  5. Dr Sarah says

    I have no idea, but it’s a great point; things like gender and their effect on tendency to apologise are bound to interact with whatever the culture’s expectations about apologies are.

  6. Dr Sarah says

    Hmmm…. yes and no. I think politeness is extremely important. And, yeah… culturally, that may take the form of apologies that don’t necessarily make logical sense (the ‘sorry to bother you’ thing). The main thing is this message of ‘I appreciate your time and trouble, and I do not take those things for granted or expect you to be at my beck and call’. ‘Sorry to bother you…’ is one way to express that. It isn’t the only way, and I think it’s worth being aware of how it can have a tendency to reinforce this background cultural idea of when we’re ‘allowed’ to request the time of others and when it counts as ‘bothering’ them, and of how gender is one of the factors that can play into this… if that makes sense.

  7. Karen Locke says

    When I was an engineer/lead/manager, I tended to approach with “sorry to interrupt, but I need to talk about X. When would be a good time?” Message: your time is important. My need is important. Can we sync the two? But I was making a point of not apologizing for my existence, which is what so many women do.

    I did my professional growing up (read: my first post-baccelaureate job, which lasted 11 years) at a company where being blunt and straightforward was considered a feature and being demure and acquiescent would get you run over by people who needed the same resources as you. At the same time, we were a very tight-knit team when the crunches came, sharing putting out the metaphorical fires and supporting one another. I fit in very successfully, though I later learned the test crew had given me the behind-my-back nickname of “Joan of Arc”. (Everyone had a behind-the-back nickname, and that wasn’t particularly unkind as they went, especially since I could be quite focused.)

    Then I had a series of jobs, none of them lasting more than a couple of years, at various companies with very different demographics to that first job. There, women were expected to be apologetic for our very existence. We were expected to be apologetic for having an original thought and the courage to share it in a group meeting. We were expected to not ask questions when we didn’t understand something. As you can imagine, I didn’t fit in. I expended every single diplomatic cell in my body (and I can be quite diplomatic when I want to be), but the refusal to act subservient was just not tolerated well by some — not all — of my colleagues. It made it hard to get the job done.

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