No one is quite sure when it happened but somewhere along the way apologizing became a reflex for women. I’ll be honest. Someone once tripped me and I apologized. Did I apologize because they had to see me stumble? Did I apologize for me assuming I was clumsy even though it was clearly the other person’s fault? Or maybe I did it because apologizing is just part of women’s DNA and is part of our need to be perceived in a certain way that society has decided is normal.
The numbers are there. A survey of 1,004 adults by SerenataFlowers.com, the UK’s leading online florist, found that the average Brit says “sorry” up to nine times per day. However a man will do it about eight times in a day, while a woman tends to land around 10. And though it can seem harmless to add a quick “I’m sorry” to a text or email, it adds up. In a new study by Chicago Booth’s Shereen Chaudhry and Carnegie Mellon’s George Loewenstein they took a detailed look at the cost an apology can take on how the person is perceived.
The researchers looked at how four sentiments—thanking, apologizing, bragging, and blaming-are connected and how they are interpreted when it comes to competence and warmth. As you can have guessed thanking and apologizing make a person seem warmer but can also signal incompetence while bragging and blaming convey the opposite.
To conduct the experiment they had subjects participate in an online math game in which whether they won or lost would impact their earnings. One game was altered to be easier and therefore resulting in a higher score. Some of the subject pairs playing had time to chat after the games providing an opportunity to look at the language they used with each other.
It was found that 70% of the discussions involved thanking but only 15% included bragging. They also found that the pairs that did talk wanted to work together again because there were exchanges that included thanks. For the player that lost they tended to express more gratitude to make up for their lack of competence. This is essentially the reasoning behind why women apologize so much. They feel a pressure to appear warmer and will do so even if it means making themselves look less competent. Chaudry said in a review of the study, “Apologizing may include a cost to one’s competence, but apologizing makes you look warmer. So apologizing may have more benefit for women than men—but not apologizing may have more cost. The opposite is true for men.”
It is really not that simple though to just tell women to stop apologizing so much. In her book “Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work,” Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen writes when women “speak in the styles that are effective when used by men — being assertive, sounding sure of themselves, talking up what they have done to make sure they get credit for it — they run the risk that everyone runs if they do not fit their culture’s expectations for appropriate behavior: They will not be liked and may even be seen as having psychological problems.”
Author Ruth Whippman recently explored this in an article for The New York Times titled “Enough Leaning In. Let’s Tell Men To Lean Out” she explores how women are constantly being told to improve their confidence in order to be strong females but really this is just the male assertiveness model being applied to women and not fitting. She calls the over-apologizing issue the “patient zero” of this makeover campaign for women’s behavior. She Whippman writes, “Rarely in the course of this anti-apologizing crusade do we ever stop to consider the social and moral value of apologies and the cost of obliterating them from our interactions. Apologizing is a highly symbolic and socially efficient way to take responsibility for our actions, to right a wrong and clear space for another person’s feelings. It’s a routine means of injecting self-examination and moral reflection into daily life.”