“Oh, sorry about that, are you okay?”
“Sorry I’m late.”
“I’m so sorry, it’s all my fault.”
Saying “I’m sorry” is one of the first things we learn to say as children, and as we grow older, saying sorry — or for some, not saying sorry — has become an often-overlooked part of our daily lives.
Why do people apologize in the first place?
An apology, often a show of vulnerability, allows a power shift from offender to victim, so that the victim can choose whether or not to accept or reject the apology and offer forgiveness. A study from the British Psychological Society found that “apologies were effective in reducing punishment and making the actor seem more likeable.” Their study shows that even with young children, apologies can help diffuse anger, mend personal relationships and allow for self-improvement.
English teacher Vennessa Nava explains the importance of apologies in not only maintaining a healthy relationship, but allowing the relationship to grow.
“I think it could really help relationships especially if you’re showing that you are aware enough to recognize your wrongdoing,” Nava said. “I think you can go a long way and make someone else more good-willing towards you going forward and recognize what kind of person you are.”
Even though Nava encourages genuine heartfelt apologies, she recognized that apologies are not always appropriate, especially for certain small accidents or inconveniences that are often apologized for.
“I think mostly people apologize when a different word would be more appropriately used,” Nava said. “I think this culture of apologies is kind of excessive because we apologize for small things that may not need apology, whereas I think, also the tendency to not apologize for bigger things that need apology.”
Nava notes that people tend to apologize more often for minor things that don’t require an apology and less often for more significant transgressions. However, this “inversion” of what we should be apologizing for can carry unfortunate consequences.
“I think that we use language to make it seem like we’re taking personal responsibility for things that maybe don’t even necessitate it or warrant it,” Nava said. “Then we might let other things slide because it’s difficult to give a genuine apology for something larger because then it’s a bigger admission of guilt.”
So, when is it appropriate to apologize?
For most people, including Senior Kristy Maanavi, apologizing is appropriate when you have done something considered to be “wrong.”
“I feel like it’s appropriate to apologize in social situations like if you had done something wrong to someone,” Maanavi said. “If I’m walking on the sidewalk and I bump into someone, I say sorry because it was an inconvenience to them and I’m trying to apologize for that.”
On the other hand, rather than trying to distinguish the blurred line between “right” and “wrong,” Nava focuses on personal conscience.
“I think if you have the goading of conscience, then that’s a time that you should probably apologize,” Nava said.
Yet despite the evidence that apologies help mend relationships and heal both victims and offenders, many people refuse to apologize, especially for larger transgressions. Refusing to apologize may be due to a variety of reasons — escaping punishment, preserving self-esteem, or avoiding shame.
What are some gender differences in apologizing?
Women are stereotyped to be the more apologetic sex, and multiple studies have confirmed this to be true. Karina Schumann, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Waterloo, explains in senior writer Rachael Rettner’s article on Live Science that although men aren’t against apologizing when they recognize their faults, they, compared to women, tend to think they have done fewer things wrong. Schumann says, “Women might have a lower threshold for what requires an apology because they are more concerned with the emotional experiences of others and in promoting harmony in their relationships.” She points out that men, on the other hand, tend to perceive events with a stronger focus on themselves.
Sloane Crosley, a writer for New York Times, explores in her article “Why Women Apologize and Should Stop” a 2010 study in the journal Psychological Science supports Schuman’s speculation by showing through a series of questions that women are more likely to apologize in everyday situations than men. For many women, apologies are linked to their conception of politeness, but from these chronic apologies, they give away their power, give ground and lower themselves unnecessarily.
An online survey taken by 52 MVHS students shows that gender differences affect even the apologies of teenagers in our school.
These differences are big enough for people, especially women, to notice.
“I notice women say sorry a lot more, especially when it’s small things like bumping into someone on a sidewalk or cutting in front of someone by accident,” Kristy said. “I think it’s because a lot more women are taught to be apologetic and more considerate of others.”
Unfortunately, this habit of over apologizing leaves women at a disadvantage.
“We read the Deborah Tannen article last year that talks about the way women often apologize for things and that puts them at a disadvantage in many high stakes situations,” Nava said. “I definitely have detected that there is a gender thing to it, especially when I reflected on my own patterns of apologizing for little things.”
These differences in apologizing are often influenced by gender norms set by our society. However, even though gender norms exist and impact our behavior, ultimately, we are the ones who control our behavior, making it possible to break away from these norms.
How can we find a balance?
For men and women alike, apologizing is not always beneficial. A study done by researchers from Dartmouth College and the University of Texas at Austin reveal that apologies, especially those that are not sincere, in the case of social rejections, are not only useless, but also tend to hurt the recipients of the apology. Rather than feeling forgiveness, the recipients felt hurt or angered if they believed the apology is insincere or unnecessary.
In addition, if you believe you haven’t done anything requiring an apology, standing your ground and refusing to apologize can bring psychological benefits as well. Instead of relinquishing power, you would retain it and therefore feel empowered. Furthermore, standing your ground when accused can help save face to preserve authenticity and self-worth.
However, refusing to apologize isn’t always simple. Researcher Tyler Okimoto and his colleagues also found that there are often deeper internal motives for refusing to apologize, further complicating the costs and benefits of apologizing. In their studies, they reveal that both apologizing and refusing to apologize can support an individual’s feelings of independence and power while improving the sense of staying true to oneself.
To find a proper balance in apologies, it is crucial to be conscious of what you’re apologizing for and why you’re apologizing. Not only can this self-awareness maximize personal psychological benefits, it can lead to genuine, impactful apologies.
“I think the precursor to proper apology would be genuine self reflection,” Nava said. “I think when something bothers you or that you were affected by an experience or that got into something that got tense or whatever, I think that’s a moment for self reflection — like what went wrong and how can I not just blame whoever else was involved and think about my own role.”
Next time the word “sorry” tries to slip out of your mouth, reconsider the reason you’re apologizing. Sometimes, sorry might not be the word you’re looking for. Perhaps it might be better to say nothing after all.