Women and the Sorry Syndrome

Shots have never been my favorite. Ever since I was little I have planned and staged performances that helped me avoid the doctor and vaccines, which included sitting in my driveway for over an hour refusing to get into the car. One of these seemingly evil injections was the flu shot. But for some reason this year, I didn’t get one. Whether my parents forgot, decided it would cause more harm than good, or just weren’t particularly worried about the state of my health, I also got incredibly sick for the first time in years. I had the cold most everyone has experienced that lasted for over a month. Every day I would drag myself to school and home, just to wake up the next day feeling worse and worse. About halfway through the virus I was in my friend’s car, and I sneezed in the middle of his sentence, then apologized for interrupting. “Why are you apologizing for being sick?” he laughed and asked incredulously. Good question.

Stereotypically, women are labeled by far the most apologetic gender. Look around and you’ll easily see a man bump into a woman and hear her apologize. You may hear a women saying sorry for asking a “stupid question” or for being allergic to a food being served. Pantene first called attention to this behavioral pattern in their commercial “Not sorry” and commanded women “Don’t Be Sorry.” Yes they’re advertising hair, but they also have an extremely valid point. In this short clip a business woman apologizes for her idea, even though she is just as qualified as all other professionals in the meeting. A woman apologizes to her husband before handing him their child to hold; this is definitely not something worthy of an apology. A man sits next to a woman and she apologizes before moving over to give him more room to sit. Instead Pantene calls for replacing “sorry” with less negative words, or just cutting it out of your sentence all together.

Amy Schumer created a similar video in which a panel of successful women have been invited to a seminar, but throughout the meeting nothing is accomplished as each woman continuously apologizes to the audience, host and each other for things as frivolous as clearing their throat before speaking. While this video is meant to be light and humorous, there is an undertone of darkness to it, as these “ridiculous” apologies we hear are said by real women each and every day.

Scientists have many ideas behind women’s “natural” apologetic state. Some believe that women apologizing before a confrontation allows them to get away with saying what people don’t want to hear; this often appears in the form of an apology before a question. Other psychologists have established that women do this in order to help smooth out tensions in social situations or show they are not a “threat” to others. It may even be a maternal attempt at helping others feel at ease. The unnecessary apology is also used as a passive-aggressive way to shame someone else into realizing they are actually the one at fault and should be apologizing. This preemptive apology also shows that women assume there is constantly mounting anger in other people; an example of this is a woman apologizing for being late even if she is not actually late.

This isn’t to say that men don’t apologize just a frequently as women when they feel they’ve done something wrong; statistically men just think they’ve done far fewer things worthy of saying sorry. It seems that women have a much lower “threshold” for what requires an apology. Women saying sorry, especially when unnecessarily, automatically puts the other person in a position of authority. Some disagree, and claim that this is just politeness. But not only is this behavior dehumanizing to women, it is unfair that only one gender exhibits it. At this point, female apologies are so common our hearing has learned to censor them out. This includes young girls to adult women, and most don’t even realize they do it.

Tami Reiss at Cyrus Innovation has created Just Not Sorry, a Google Chrome extension app that highlights or underlines particular words in emails, including “sorry” to help women, as well as men, take unnecessary “sorrys” out of their daily vocabulary. These apologies women make are practically habitual, but that doesn’t mean they should remain a part of our vernacular. As a man or women, catch yourself before saying sorry, and ask, “Do I really mean it?”