If there is one issue on which everyone, from The New York Times to Pantene shampoo, now agrees, it’s that women apologise too much. There’s even an app to help us quit this apparently self-destructive habit, which will police our emails for signs of excessive contrition, underlining anything of an overly apologetic nature in angry red wiggles. It’s enough to send anyone but the most resolutely unsorry into a tailspin of apologising for the apologising.
I am a lavish apologiser. I’m female. I’m British. I spend much of my life feeling inexplicably vaguely guilty about something. Despite having never so much as pilfered a penny sweet, every time I hear a police siren I still flinch like an international drug kingpin. My agent, a male New Yorker (perhaps the world’s most culturally assertive combination), is constantly baffled as to why I begin every email I ever send him with a catch-all apology, like the legal disclaimer on the title page of a book. For me, a “sorry to bother you” is just a standard tax I feel I owe in recognition of the fact that he is a busy person with important things to do, and I am someone who just spent the last 20 minutes doing the “Which brunch entrée are you?” BuzzFeed quiz. But, in his eyes, I might as well be sending over a daily gif of myself bashing my own head with a mallet.
The problem with saying sorry, so the argument goes, is that, at best, it’s unassertive, putting women at a subtle disadvantage in negotiations over status and pay. At worst, it’s full-scale passive aggressive.
This critique of the apology is part of a wider phenomenon, in which things associated with girls or women, from the colour pink to domestic labour, are consistently assigned a lower cultural value than those associated with boys or men. Fashion, say, is vain and shallow, while football is basically an offshoot of existentialism. Girls are routinely encouraged to “be anything a boy can be”, whereas even committed feminists recoil at the idea of urging a boy to be more like a girl.
Part of the critique of female apologising is the fear that saying sorry is an implicit acknowledgement of being in the wrong. But generous-spirited human interaction shouldn’t be about a meticulous allocation of liability
The current anti-apologising crusade is pretty typical of this subtly toxic gender hierarchy, and it’s bothersome, not just because it can easily slide into yet another way to blame women for wider structural issues of discrimination, such as unequal pay. Because, broadly speaking, apologising is something we should be encouraging, not condemning. Saying sorry is a mark of consideration for others feelings, of taking responsibility for our own actions. Perhaps women shouldn’t be apologising less – men should be apologising more.
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. The date who calls, when you’re sitting on a bar stool in full make-up at the appointed meeting time, to inform you that he’s “just leaving the house now”. The guy who bumps into you on the street, jostling your pram or your coffee, and simply huffs and keeps walking. The friend who cancels a long-standing arrangement at the last minute because they “don’t feel like going out”.
Part of the critique of female apologising is the fear that saying sorry is an implicit acknowledgement of being in the wrong. But generous-spirited human interaction shouldn’t be about a meticulous allocation of liability. This is the mentality that gives rise to the uniquely enraging “no-fault” apology, the type that sounds as though it has been drafted by a corporate legal team after an oil spill. “I’m sorry if you felt upset…” with its implicit simultaneous denial of the validity of any such feelings. But just as tacking a “please” on to your “pass the salt” does not instantly transform you into a snivelling supplicant, a heartfelt “I’m sorry” is not the same as a signed confession.
Whatever the specifics of blame, at its most trivial an unqualified apology smooths the path of daily human interaction. On the more important issues, its symbolic significance is immense. There is a reason why even those who will never see reparations or any form of material gain in atonement for horrors such as slavery or the holocaust crave the profound acknowledgement of a formal apology.
Saying sorry is a recognition that the time and feelings and convenience of another person are important. Apologising isn’t a sign of weakness – it’s a mark of strength, of taking responsibility and being aware of the implications of your actions on others. Really, that is something we should all be getting behind.
Ruth Whippman is the author of The Pursuit of Happiness and Why It’s Making us Anxious