Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Apologetic Sex

When it comes to apology, the gender divide is massive.

In a culture where everyone talks the good talk about taking responsibility, the burden seems always to fall on women. Women tend to apologize all the time, regardless of the offense. Men tend never to apologize at all.

Whatever steps the culture has made toward equality, clearly, in this specific realm, the divide is larger than ever. We might even say that the efforts to deny the reality of the differences between the sexes has produced an unnecessarily great divide.

Stranger still, when it comes to apology, and probably only when it comes to apology, women are the more promiscuous sex.

Writing for Jezebel, Anna North addresses the female tendency toward excessive apologetics: “Women especially are often called upon to apologize for things that aren't actually bad — or aren't our fault — and the result can be a feeling that our needs or desires or our very beings are things we need to be ashamed of. First of all, you don't have to apologize for stating your opinion in a respectful way. It's become pretty common to start a sentence with 'I'm sorry, but’ or ‘I'm sorry if I'm stepping on anyone's toes here‘ — but as long as the pending statement isn't malicious, you have nothing to apologize for. And if it is, you probably shouldn't be saying it. Second, you don't need to apologize for taking up space. Maybe I'm the only one who says ‘sorry‘ when someone else steps on my foot, but it's a stupid habit and I'm trying to break it. It implies that I'm at fault just for having a physical body in the world, a notion I ordinarily try to work against.” Link here.

Perhaps women feel that they are called upon to take the blame for everything that goes wrong, but surely, as North says, they would do better to demur.

She notes correctly that when a woman apologizes all the time she is indulging a bad habit, one that makes apology into a meaningless verbal tic.

North suggests-- perhaps from experience- that a woman who stops apologizing for everything and nothing will discover that she is feeling more confident.

Everyone wants to feel more confident. Some mental exercises will momentarily boost your so-called self-esteem, but even if you discover a magical mental trick that gives you a rush of confidence, you can undermine it all by going out and saying you're sorry.

The more you say you're sorry, the more you're going to believe that you're sorry.

Confidence might be a state of mind, but the best way to gain it and to keep it is to behave as though you have it.

I have written about apology before (here) and will not revisit the topic in detail, except to say that if every other word out of your mouth is “sorry” then your apologies are going to sound insincere, even when they are sincere.

Apologize too often and your words will end up sounding meaningless, even when you genuinely mean them.

If you live on the other side of the great gender divide, and you can never bring yourself to say you’re sorry, then you are probably avoiding feelings of weakness or vulnerability. For a man, such feelings are seriously uncomfortable. Besides, if a man becomes too vulnerable, women and men will cease respecting him.

When a man never apologizes, he will surely gain some confidence. And yet, if he refuses to apologize when he is clearly at fault, he will lost the respect of others. Making a habit of not apologizing will cause your confidence to morph into one of its less engaging manifestations… arrogance or hubris.

When something goes wrong and everyone knows that you never admit to a fault, others will have to step up and take the blame. Most often it will be a person who is more comfortable feeling vulnerable.... a woman.

She may be compensating for his failure. She may be trying to show him how it’s done.

If you have a couple where one person is always admitting to fault while the other is never admitting to fault it not going to have a very harmonious time of it.  

Let’s see what we can do for this couple. As I say, despite our gender bending culture, or perhaps because of it, it is not uncommon to encounter a couple made up of a man who is all man and a woman who is all woman. To the point where neither can make the least accommodation for the sensibility of the other gender.

How are we going to get each of them to improve their apology skills, that is, their moral character?

It’s easier to identify a problem than to map out a solution. It is harder still to stick with a plan and solve the problem.

I think it is fair to say that a man who never apologizes will not suddenly wake up knowing how, when, and where to say he is sorry.

If he is going to develop his skill at apology, he should consider it to be something like an underutilized muscle.

His initial attempts to exercise said muscle will produce some feelings of acute pain. He will have to know that the pain comes from under-use and he should be on his guard against assuming that it is telling him that he has made a mistake.

This will be even more important because he is not going to start out getting it right. He will most likely start out by apologizing when it is not necessary to do so.

And this is going to produce uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability, accompanied by a loss of confidence.

How long do you think that he is going to stick with this program?

As I say, it is not very easy to get from here to there.

A woman who follows Anna North’s advice and stops apologizing will surely start by under-apologizing, by failing to say she is sorry for actions where she is at fault and where an apology is called for.

She will start feeling brutish, out of character, not very womanly, almost manly, but she will also feel less vulnerable and less weak.

She will have an easier time of changing her behavior, because strength and confidence will not necessarily undermine her femininity to the same extent that excessive apologies will undermine a man’s sense of being a man.

This points us toward something of a solution. When a woman refuses to take on the role of designated apologist, perhaps the man will feel that he can now apologize for the error of his ways.

This approach attacks an unhealthy interpersonal dynamic without uttering a word of condemnation or contempt. I feel confident in telling you that if this woman spends her time berating her husband, attacking his faults, and demanding an apology... their marriage will quickly turn sour.


vanderleun said...

In passing, I would only say that a large percentage of a husband's apologies are directed at getting "that look" off the wife's face.

He might or might not actually be "sorry," but removing "that look" is the immediate stimulus.

Retriever said...

I think a lot depends on birth order. My spouse is an only child and I am the oldest, so we are both bossy boots who hate apologizing, both seldom wrong and never in doubt. We've both had to learn how to apologize, over the years. In fact, at times, it's been the kids who have shamed us into it when we were behaving like brats.

By contrast, my late younger brother was a very kind and accomodating husband. I suspect it had something to do with my sister and I having been such tyrannical older sisters. Sheer terror taught him to apologize early, apologize often to keep the Amazons from destroying him...well, not really, but as the adored baby of the family, he was very agreeable, and wanted to make people happy.

I suspect that oldest kids and only kids are likelier to be pig-headed and insist that they are right more often. Until some sense gets knocked into them by life...

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: All
RE: Confidence?!!??!?!?!, Anyone?


Confidence might be a state of mind, but the best way to gain it and to keep it is to behave as though you have it. -- Stuart Schneiderman

....the "best way to gain it" is to do the thing. And do it again and again until you are confident with doing and doing it well. That requires 'practice'. And, admittedly, the good doctor is talking about that as well.

As my 'mentor' at the Army Command & General Staff College put it, "Practice makes permanent. I'LL make you 'perfect' [at doing it right.]" Once you have it down pat, i.e., 'perfect', there's no need to 'apologize'.

On the other hand we have John Wayne—as a senior officer in the US Army Cavalry—in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, counselling, i.e., admonishing, subordinate lieutenants, "Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness."

On the third hand, based on experience in the military and corporate environments, it's not good to 'apologize'. Unless you are certainly identified as being totally FUBAR.

Even then, you can apologize for being caught in situations of circumstance wherein you have no control. Case in point.... Sister married an Iranian. Three guesses as to what became of my 'security clearance'. First two don't count....

What was I saying about 'having it all'? It might not be 'Your Way'. But still and CAN have it 'all'.


[Life is a game of 'chance'. And you've just been finessed.]

Dennis said...

One time when I was going into town I came across my son going home. The road was very curvy and he was cutting all the corners to get home faster. After I got home we had a little talk about his driving skills and attention to the rules.
Part of that conversation was about habits that one attains through life. The point was that habits become habits because we constantly reinforce them by our actions. I mentioned to him that life consists of a number of learned habits that govern how we act.
We can by our actions make them into good or bad habits. The real problem or saving grace is that when things get tough we will automatically lean on those habits. In his case the day may come when he is under pressure and that bad habit will get him killed.
The moral for him, and I suppose others, is that if we consciously attempt to develop good habits that they will be there when we are under extreme pressure.