"I'm sorry." Two little words that have come to mean . . . almost nothing.
It was a good week for demonstrating just how vapid the apology has become. First, Ginni Thomas called Anita Hill and left a voice mail asking her to apologize
for saying that Ginni's husband, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, sexually harassed her nearly two decades ago
. Then the Wall Street Journal wrote about the cultural significance
of the apology: We apologize more to strangers than we do to loved ones or family, according to new research
from the University of Waterloo (in Ontario).
To make matters worse, the Canadian research team has put into words what most of us probably suspected: Women apologize more than men do. It's official. We are so sorry!
I've been doing some research of my own. This week, I walked around mentally tabulating my apologies.
1. Bumped into someone on the Metro: Whoops, sorry!
2. My mentor called me and asked how I was doing. I said I was sorry for taking up your time, but I have a few more questions.
3. Forgot to buy paper towels: Sorry, roomies. Will do it tomorrow.
4. Got cut off while chatting online: Sorry, my Internet died.
5. A friend is sick: Sorry to hear you aren't feeling well.
Turns out, I apologize a lot. I say I'm sorry for things I have no control over, like the delinquency of my Internet service provider. I express contrition for accidentally bumping into people -- as though it is a grave fault for which I deserve punishment.
The average person asks for forgiveness four times a week. I do it about five times per day, mainly because I am one of those super-polite types, forever trying to smooth things over with my extreme graciousness (in Paris, I once apologized to a dog I hit with a Frisbee -- in French). Saying "I'm sorry to hear you aren't feeling well" seems like a textbook expression of sympathy. But apologizing for asking questions? I began to wonder whether all of this apologizing made me seem weak.
Erving Goffman, an oft-quoted sociologist who wrote "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life," maintained that a full apology includes the following elements: "expression of embarrassment or chagrin; clarification that one knows what conduct has been expected and sympathizes with the application of negative sanction; verbal rejection, repudiation, and disavowal of the wrong way of behaving along with vilification of the self that so behaved."
Following Goffman's logic, when I apologize for forgetting to buy paper towels or for taking up my mentor's time, I am actually demeaning my actions and presenting myself as deserving of some sort of cosmic flogging.
Wasn't exactly what I intended. We can live another day without a way to wipe the kitchen counters. And I can live without projecting an image of myself as a nuisance who doesn't warrant the time of someone who loves and respects me.
Yet it seems that many people, even when they are not apologizing for their own mistakes, are willing to associate some degree of personal affiliation with an unfortunate circumstance ("I'm sorry that my internet isn't working," for example).
In a casual experiment, I asked a number of my female friends and family members about the frequency of their requests for forgiveness. "Oh yeah, I apologize too much," they all said. (One remarked that I had prefaced my rant about female apologies with the words, "I'm sorry, but can you tell me about how often you apologize?")
How much is too much? What makes women think that because they apologize more than men do, they are over-apologizing?
One reason, perhaps, is that effective apologies project humility and compassion. At best, apologizing is a way of saying, "I am thinking about your feelings, and recognizing that I have done something wrong, or that you are suffering and I wish you weren't." But some suggest that men do not perceive the apology to be quite so courteous or humble.
The Wall Street Journal wrote
that men often apologize to women without knowing what they are apologizing for, in order to "end the drama" or to "move on." One male interview participant said, "Ninety percent of [male] apologies are to keep the peace. How can you have a sincere apology if you don't know what you've done?"
I recently argued
that women shouldn't have to change their behavior in order to aspire to arbitrary cultural determinants of male power. But it seems that if many men are issuing apologies without understanding why, and women are both issuing and demanding apologies with greater frequency
, there is an obvious misalignment. This can be dangerous, particularly because of the power relations involved in being the apologizer versus the aggrieved.
People with less power have to apologize more. A boss who walks in late to a company meeting need not apologize for his or her actions, but an employee tardy for the same meeting will most likely have to express contrition. The employee must recognize that he did something wrong by the standards the boss has created for the workplace. Failure to apologize might lead to retribution, and in this sense, the apology can be seen as a tool for maintaining the status quo and reinforcing existing power structures.
So how can we surmount such a Catch-22?
I recently met a woman in Washington, D.C., who may be on to a solution: She demonstrated the "non-apology apology." A mutual friend had put us in touch; we were going to meet for breakfast and talk about our experiences living and working the capital. Just before the time of our appointment, she called to say she was running 20 minutes late. When she finally arrived, I expected her to apologize. She didn't. Instead, she shook my hand and said, "I appreciate your patience."
It was a brilliant move. Instead of becoming a supplicant, earnestly asking me to forgive her transgression, she was sincere in her attempt to make it up to me (she bought an omelet) and showed respect for a character trait of mine that I value. Pop psychologists would call this "empowerment." Any frustrated feelings I had about her lateness were deflected, and she didn't have to prostrate herself over missing a bus.
The tricky thing about the apology, according to Nick Smith, author of "I Was Wrong: The Meaning of Apologies," is that it is a performative statement, as opposed to a factual one. The very act of saying "I'm sorry" makes it so -- as opposed to saying "I can fly," because "speaking those words does not constitute the act of taking flight."
For this reason, it can be hard to tell when apologies are sincere, since most of what we have to go on is the language of remorse. Culturally we have become increasingly cynical about this language, both because of its ubiquity and its saturation in the media. While some apologies are genuine expressions of respect for the person wronged, others exist merely to make the apologizer feel less guilty. Websites have cropped up that allow remorseful people to make "public apologies
," with such declarations as "To everyone, I never meant to be a cheater . . . so I guess I owe the world an apology now." Still other apologies are mere acts of political expedience, void of sincerity. A movement has built around imploring CEOs
to see the words "I'm sorry" not as a sign of weakness but as a strategy for cementing leadership and building trust among employees.
Apologies are powerful. They can reunite estranged family members. They can bring lovers back together. They can provide solace in the face of injustice, relief after a long and bitter struggle. They can end wars. But in order to maximize their import, we should be more discriminating about when we use them. Apologizing when we haven't done anything wrong, or apologizing for circumstances outside of our control denigrates our language and denigrates us. Apologies are not placeholders. "I'm sorry" should not be what we say when we're at a loss for words.