Wednesday, June 25, 2014

When Women Say They're Sorry

It’s really all about the shampoo. Specifically, it’s about Pantene shampoo. Its latest ad promises women that if they stop saying that they are sorry they will have shinier hair… or something. Apparently, Pantene wants women to associate shiny hair with strength. 

Of course!

In fact, the ad is exploiting the feminist effort to teach women to be more like men, to lean in and to act as though they are strong. Because, you know, the more you say you are strong the stronger you become.

For a woman, of course, hair matters. It matters enormously. The reason is simple: something like 70% of a woman’s pheromones—her sexual attraction hormones—are in her hair. That is why some women let their hair grow out.

It appears that the folks who conjured up the Pantene ad are trying to exploit women’s willingness to follow the lead of the Pied Pipers of feminism. If women really want to be more like men—and less attractive to men-- they should wear their hair short, very short. But, in that case they will be using less shampoo.

For my part, perhaps because I was well brought up, I do not believe that women are especially prone to pathological behaviors. I do not see them as mindless tools of the patriarchy. I do not tell women how to dress, for example, and do not believe that the fashion and cosmetics industries are patriarchal conspiracies designed to prevent women from fulfilling themselves as assembly line workers.

If women choose freely to wear cosmetics or fashionable, who am I to denounce them? Why would I lay a guilt trip on them?

And why does anyone imagine that a woman will gain more confidence if she is constantly being criticized by other women for acting like a woman?

If your reasoning is based on the specious notion that men and women are really the same, you will constantly be deriding women for not acting more like men. And you will be setting them up for failure: a woman who acts more like a man will be pretending to be something she is not.

Take the current cacophony about how many times women use the word “sorry.” Clearly, feminists take this behavior as an offense against their efforts to brainwash the world into thinking that women are just as strong as men. Feminists believe that if you keep saying that women are stronger women will become stronger.

Obviously, feminists are missing a few little grey cells.

Now, imagine that women are physically weaker than men. If so, they are more vulnerable to aggression and less capable of defending themselves. If that is true, a woman’s being more conciliatory would count as adaptive behavior.

If a woman is induced by her feminist mistresses to stop saying "sorry" and "excuse me" she risks becoming more confrontational. Then she will be exposing herself to more danger.

Then, these women who have followed feminist advice will find themselves in more dangerous and abusive situations. Naturally, they will blame the patriarchy.

Of course.

In the midst of the usual cacophony about how many times women say “sorry” Megan Garber of The Atlantic offered an exceptionally clear-headed analysis of the problem.

She alone, to my knowledge, emphasized the difference between the everyday use of the term “sorry” and a formal apology.

Garber explains:

Anyway, "sorry" is … semantically supple. It can be meaningful, but only in a particular context. It can indicate, depending on the circumstances in which it's deployed, deep regret—I'm sorry I lied, I'm sorry I cheated, I'm sorry I ate your plums—but it could also indicate contrition of a much more casual variety. I'm sorry I bumped into you. I'm sorry I yelled at you, but the skinny latte I ordered had obviously been made with whole milk.

As Garber suggests, it is wrong to believe that every time a woman uses the word “sorry” she is a sorry excuse for a feminist.

Here, the question is degree, not kind. Some apologies are seriously meaningful expressions. Others are casual attempts to promote social harmony.

In some cases an apology represents an admission of failure. But that is only true in specific ritualized contexts.  A CEO who presents himself to the public to express his deep shame for having failed at his job is not doing the same thing as you are doing when you jostle someone on the street and say that you are sorry.

When a CEO apologizes he is saying that he deserves to be sanctioned for his behavior. He should, in the best cases, resign his position and retire from public life for a time.

When someone apologizes in the strong sense he is publicly admitting to having failed a significant duty. He is saying that he will never do it again, and that he does not deserve to be treated as a respectable citizen. He will accompany his apology by a resignation and by a temporary withdrawal from public life.

When you jostle someone on the street or interrupt a meeting by opening the door at an inopportune moment, you are saying that you made a mistake and that the mistake was unintentional. You are not saying that you are unfit for human intercourse or that you will retire from public life for a time.

Garber distinguishes casual from severe apologies. We can also call them weak and strong apologies:

They assume that when I apologize for my clumsiness or my lateness or my plum-eating (they were delicious, by the way), I am tacitly admitting to some kind of profound character flaw….

My casual apology—I'll just speak for myself here—is not a castigation, of myself or my self-worth or my gender; it is not necessarily—asa Jezebel article, presuming to speak for all of us, put it last year—an indication of "our guilt complexes and inner Pollyannas."

The real question is whether one or another rhetorical strategy works. And, what works for you might not work for someone else.

Sometimes indirect expressions, expressions laden with niceness and charm are more effective than sentences that are direct and straightforward.

Deborah Tannen explained that in Japan a manager might choose not to be very dominant or aggressive, but might prefer to couch a request in something that sounds like an apology.

If an indirect expression—I’m sorry to have to ask you this-- the expression that does not really signify contrition, motivates the employee, why do something else?

Some women tell us that they have profited from leaning in. Others have lost out on job or promotional opportunities for mistaking empty self-assertion with effective communication.

If women feel that “sorry” or “excuse me” are effective conversational lubricants, they should continue to use them. If they systematically remove such expressions they might find that their relationships become more harsh and more disagreeable… at the least.


Anonymous said...

Feminists are silly, but I think 'sorry' is overused by both men and women.

It's especially ridiculous when you had nothing to do the misfortune of others. e.g. someone got fired but you say 'I'm sorry.'

One thing for sure, I hope people stop apologizing for going against PC.

A-Bax said...

"The reason is simple: something like 70% of a woman’s pheromones—her sexual attraction hormones—are in her hair. That is why some women let their hair grow out."

No doubt this is true, but there is another (perhaps synergistic) possible reason. Evo Psych tells us that most aspects of female beauty (hourglass figure, symmetrical facial features, clear skin, long hair, body-tightness) are markers of youth and fertility.

Long hair in particular communicates that she has been disease-free for a while (as long as it would take to grow the hair our), since many diseases negatively affect hair production/quality.

This is all sub-conscious, of course, but note that almost all men prefer long hair on women. And while it is true that some women still look pretty hot even with shorter hair (Halle Berry), they look FAR sexier with long hair.

This is why black women are obsessed with extensions (to better compete with her non-African sisters), and why a large number of middle-age and post-menopausal women opt for a shorter hairdo. (They already have their kids/man, and don't need to attract a mate).

Lastango said...

I notice that in all the "strong" vignettes at the end, where the other party is visible, the woman is interacting with a man. She's standing up for herself, showing some guy a thing or two.

This is the new definition of confidence and self-value: assert yourself, be in charge, and use interactions with men as your yardstick. In my experience, that mindset is in practice defensive, and devalues the other person. It's also self-defeating; other people know when she's getting in their face, even if it's subtle and she's smiling and using "friendly" body english. Take the slight bump in the kitchen, for instance. Anyone stupid enough to believe their relationship will be strengthened by turning a trivial encounter into an empowerment moment deserves the fallout. Any woman who believes it in the early going is far less likely to ever be standing in that kitchen with her husband, passing their baby boy to him.

Ares Olympus said...

I'll go with Megan's conclusion. I think its good to have some reflective awareness of your language usage and that of others, and to sometimes experiment what works, what allows needs to be met with a minimum of stress.

"The low-stakes 'sorry' that indicates not contrition, but ... cooperation. The kind that acknowledges that people, being people, will screw up. The kind that hopes that people, being people, will forgive. The kind that isn't freighted with power or gender or blame, but that simply helps the world to whirl a little more smoothly."

Anonymous said...

"Never complain, never explain." (Henry Ford II)

Over-apologizing is annoying, to be sure. However, the Japanese economy has been in the crapper for about 20 years because no one can apologize without losing their honor, resulting in pangs of suicide and disgrace-by-association. It creates a sclerotic, un-creative economy, which is driven by a risk-averse culture. If you're a banker and made a bad loan, you made a mistake. You apologize and see it as a part of creative destruction, pointing out that your portfolio is a great asset to the company, reflecting a trend of sound business judgment. Creativity requires risk. When no one can fess up to the "intolerable" risk of making a couple bad loans, and an entire banking system seizes, you've got a very serious problem. Year after year, stimulus after stimulus, the Japanese economy is still in the doldrums, with inflated asset prices because no one wants to call bad loans.they just bow and carry on with business as usual.

Lehman brothers was, of course, the opposite of this, with the head of the firm expecting (even demanding) a federal bailout for his firm's recklessness and myriad indiscretions -- driven by astonishing arrogance. The American MBS/CDO disaster is a crowning example of what happens when moral hazard is ignored and the pendulum swings the other way.

Count me as an unqualified YES for long hair on women. I can appreciate the convenience and utility of making the move to short hair, but it seems like the feminine equivalent of raising the white flag. It's like the man who gives in and actually comes to admit to others that he enjoys the family minivan. Or perhaps a man who likes cats, but claims his cats are different... they're not like normal cats. Ahem, no they're not. All cats are the same.


Anonymous said...

Actually, saying sorry can be subtly aggressive.

Consider the scene in SEINFELD where a woman accidentally barges into a room and sees Constanza in the nude and says, "I'm so sorry" with an obvious double-meaning.

Oftentimes, saying sorry implies that you're superior to the person whom you say it to.

For example, if someone is going bald and you say 'sorry' to him, it means you're a lot better off than his pitiful balding self.

Or if you get a great SAT score but a friend gets a poor one, saying sorry to him implies that you made it, he didn't, and therefore, you're in the position to feel sorry for inferior people.