When it comes to apologies, it seems as if there are three types of people in the world, constituting a spectrum: those who apologize very little, if at all; those who apologize appropriately; and those who apologize for nearly everything. People in this last category apologize even, or especially, when they have nothing for which they need to apologize. And all these apologies undermine a person’s worth and dignity. It is also not surprising that there is a gendered dimension to apologies.
A 2010 study found that women apologize more than men. Women also self-report committing more offenses, or engaging in behavior that warranted apologies, than men. Do women simply misbehave more than men? Not exactly. The study found that men and women have markedly different thresholds of what constitutes an offense deserving an apology. Women have a lower threshold; men have a much higher one. In other words, women see more acts for which we must apologize than men do; we see more of the things we do as wrong, out of line, inappropriate, or hurtful. A man and woman may do exactly the same thing but regard it differently; she will see it as an offense that requires an apology and he may not.
The study found that men and women apologize for an equal proportion of their offenses once they are recognized as such (approximately 81 percent). It is just that women understand ourselves as having a greater number of offenses we need to make right; 81 percent of a large number will always be greater than 81 percent of a much smaller one. This is part of the reason women are vastly overrepresented in the “apologize for everything” category. Another reason is that women assume responsibility for many matters that are not properly their own. Women are expected to be more emotionally and socially attuned to others; a high degree of caring and social labor falls to women. Women and men both internalize this expectation, and that leads to the apology gap as well. This expectation is always present in the paid and unpaid work women do.
Consider many mothers in a two-parent household: Various sociological studies have shown that wives and mothers tend to function as the equivalent of air traffic controllers in a family. They know the kids’ schedules, friends, teachers, appointments, etc. When a teen forgets to bring her musical instrument to school, the mother may apologize. But what exactly is she apologizing for, and to whom? She may feel responsible for the initial disruption (not having done a “going out the door” inventory) and for not being able to fix it (she is not able to scuttle her own schedule to bring the instrument herself). Further, she may feel responsible for her daughter’s unhappiness at not being able to participate in band rehearsal and believe that may affect the quality of the band’s performance later in the week. As the mother keeps extending her alleged responsibility, she increases the number of apologies she believes she owes: Now she owes apologies to the members of the band, and their parents, and so on.
Saying “I am sorry” becomes something of a habitual response. William James describes habits as folds in a piece of paper. For some, the habit of apologizing becomes second nature. Given that women are often charged with the task of being peacemakers and attending to the needs of others, it may start to be easier to apologize for matters rather than saying, “This isn’t fair or right or healthy.” It may be easier to apologize than to ascribe responsibility in the proper direction.
The habitual or knee-jerk apologist runs a great risk of losing herself through all her apologies. She sees so many of the things she does as offenses or wrongs and takes responsibility for things that are not properly hers. Left unchecked, a person who overapologizes to such a high degree will never see herself as deserving or worthy of an apology herself. Relationships in which one person always apologizes and the other rarely or never does are not healthy.
Apologies—genuine and appropriate ones—are vital for maintaining healthy relationships, and they are important instruments for engaging in moral repair. Moral repair, as Elizabeth Spelman describes it, aims to restore, rehabilitate, renovate, reconcile, redeem, heal, fix, mend, and make better. To apologize genuinely to another is to recognize their dignity and humanity. Genuinely apologizing is also a way for a person to restore her own humanity and dignity when she recognizes a wrong she has done.
The challenge is teaching and learning how to apologize. It takes experience and wisdom to recognize when one owes a genuine apology. It takes even more for some to recognize they deserve an apology. Apologizing well is a skill that can only be acquired by practice. Even without assuming responsibility for things that are not properly ours, each of us has ample opportunity to practice.