“Never, dear. Men don’t say that”

London Underground subway

The London Underground. Public domain photo by Maria Molinero.

A few days ago, I was on the Tube — the London Underground subway. Somewhere between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square on the Piccadilly line, I apologized to a fellow passenger for being in front of the doors when she wanted to get off at her stop: “sorry, I’m in the way.”

I wasn’t expecting her response. She put her hand on my arm and, in a North American accent, said emphatically: “Never, dear. Men don’t say that.”

It made me smile because it was one of those brief interactions with strangers that you don’t expect, and also because her words rang true. I tend to apologize a lot and I probably say “sorry” too much. But I’m not sure that it’s entirely a result of being a woman.

A recent survey found that the average Brit says “sorry” around eight times a day, even when they’re not at fault. This Buzzfeed list of ’65 things that will make a British person say sorry’ amusingly but truthfully exaggerates the point. I’ve definitely apologized for at least five out of the first six things on the list!

1. Walking into someone.

2. Nearly walking into someone.

3. Being walked into.

4. Nearly being walked into.

5. Walking into a door.

6. Not hearing what someone has said…

It’s one of those British habits that probably contributes to an outsider’s perception of the UK as being “frightfully civilized and all that” (in your mind, the last words in quote marks should be read in a plummy English accent). 

This article from the BBC has an interesting although somewhat simplistic explanation for the “sorry reflex” that seems to be embedded in British culture:

British society values that its members show respect without imposing on someone else’s personal space, and without drawing attention to oneself: characteristics that linguists refer to as “negative-politeness” or “negative-face”. America, on the other hand, is a positive-politeness society, characterised by friendliness and a desire to feel part of a group.

But it’s also true that gender plays a part in language, and the sociolinguistic study of language and gender is a thriving academic field.

Many early feminist studies of linguistics (e.g. Lakoff’s 1975 book Language and Women’s Place) talked about “women’s language”, i.e. women talk more than men, women interrupt less than men, women are less assertive, and so on. These sweeping generalizations may hold some truth, but they are also reductionist: language isn’t as clear-cut as that.

Using categories like “women’s language” or “men’s language” reinforces stereotypes of gender differences in speech. Today, most sociolinguistic studies take a much more holistic view, accepting gender as one complex variable among many others, such as a person’s social background, ethnicity and the context of the speech.

conversation talking language.jpg

Men and women talking. Public domain photo by Kevin Curtis.

So, is my habit of saying sorry really linked to my gender? Janet Holmes is a linguist and expert on politeness theories — in her work, she shows that men and women tend to apologize differently due to “differences in their perceptions of the kind of situations which require an apology” (Holmes, 1989, p.202).

She concludes that women are more likely to say sorry if they bump into someone or take their place, whereas men may not always view that situation as requiring an apology. In that case, her explanation supports my automatic apology reflex when I was standing on the subway. 

Although it’s accepted in popular literature that women say sorry more often, there is little concrete evidence that this is the case. A 2010 study in the journal Psychological Science found some evidence that supported the stereotype, but the authors pointed out that “our data suggest that men apologize less frequently than women do because they have higher thresholds for what constitutes offensive behavior” (Schumann and Ross, 2010, p.5).

people talking in London.jpg

People chatting in a cafe overlooking St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. Photo by Christian Battaglia.

While it’s impossible to draw simplified conclusions that “men do this and women do that”, it seems that gendered differences in levels of apologies can be partly explained in relation to the way we perceive situations. Gender is certainly one factor to be considered, but it is not the only one. 

Ether way, the woman’s comment made me smile and pause for thought.

Do you find yourself automatically saying “sorry” in situations when it perhaps isn’t necessary? What do you think about the gender vs. nationality explanation for the frequency of apologies? 

 

 

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33 thoughts on ““Never, dear. Men don’t say that”

    • I agree, for me it’s a matter of politeness too. 😃 I think it’s interesting to explore cultural differences though, e.g. British people saying sorry a lot. But sometimes these cultural traits are just stereotypes which aren’t supported by fact.

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  1. It sounds weird to say but I used to apologise (unnecessarily) much more than I do now. I think politeness matters and is important, but I realised how much I said “sorry” for things that didn’t really merit an apology or apologetic language, and I’ve tried to consciously change it. I’ve tried to replace it with things like, “Excuse me,” if I bump into someone or am trying to pass by them–a request instead of an “apology.”

    I absolutely think that the niceties of language are both cultural and gendered in many instances and though there’s not a lot of scientific evidence, I certainly have plenty of anecdotal experience that women use apologetic language more than men. Part of the reason, admittedly, while I tried to cut down on it 😉

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    • I hear you. I’ve started editing out apologetic language (things like “I just wanted to ask you…”, “sorry to bother you…”) from my emails. Why apologize for something that isn’t necessary? 🙂

      There’s a lot of interesting research about communication and women in the workplace, particularly by Janet Holmes and Louise Mullany. Their analyses of professional communication suggest that the masculine-centred norms of the corporate world can reinforce gender ideologies and the glass ceiling. And Mullany talks about the ‘double bind’ paradox — in her work with female managers, she found that they were negatively evaluated more often when they used a more stereotypically masculine speech style. I haven’t got a citation for this, but I think that assertive women are more likely to face criticism.

      But then I also wonder: if we try to change our speech to conform to masculine norms, what does that say about our society?

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  3. This is a great topic, Grace! I do notice that the British do say sorry more, although in some contexts it seems to act more like “excuse me” rather than an actual apology. While I was studying in London, I did pick up the habit of saying “sorry” when I needed someone to repeat themselves and I definitely do apologize (whether it’s my fault or not) when I get in someone’s way.
    I remember reading somewhere that there’s this very odd culture surrounding apologies (at least in the U.S.) where it’s often seen as weak to apologize, when in reality, it actually shows a lot of courage for someone to initiate a sincere apology. One of my friends from London wrote her dissertation on corporate apologies and it was a fascinating look at how something that’s a vital part of interpersonal communication shifted/changed when applied to a different context. Anyway, sorry for the mini-ramble (oh look, there’s sorry again!). Hope you’re having a great weekend. 🙂

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    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

      I agree — “sorry” is often used as a alternative to “excuse me”. And I’m sometimes over-apologetic at work when I need to ask a colleague something but I don’t want to bother them. I guess I’m just trying to be polite, but it’s probably just annoying!

      I’m curious about what you say in the States if you don’t hear what someone has said. Are you more direct?

      Corporate apologies sounds like a really interesting topic, by the way.

      Haha, please don’t apologize! I always appreciate your lovely, thoughtful comments. 🙂

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      • Good question. I think it depends on age and what region you’re from, but in California (where people are just super casual in general), I hear anything from, “Sorry, say that again?” to “Wait, what?” (usually from younger people). In professional settings, I do hear “I’m sorry?” and “Pardon?” but usually it’s some form of “What was that?” Do any of those sound rude to you? I’m curious to know!

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        • I’d be uncomfortable saying “wait, what?” to someone I don’t know very well or in a professional setting, as I think it could sound rude. But I do say “what?” or some variant of that, like “what was that, sorry?”, in a less formal setting when I know the people. And all the other phrases you mentioned are ones that are commonly used here.

          Accent probably has something to do with it as well. I often think that Californian and other North American accents sound very friendly, whereas an RP British accent can sometimes sound a bit standoffish. So the same phrase said in different accents could possibly be perceived differently by the listener…

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          • You bet! Funny enough, most Americans go crazy for British accents (particularly young females sigh….) so they won’t even care what’s being said as long as they can hear the accent. Yet another interesting topic that I could go on for days about haha! Hope you’re doing well, I’ll get to your email soon later this week!

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  4. This is interesting. Canadians, both male and female, apologise for all the items on your list, so here, that kind of language would not be seen as particularly feminine. It is also common to hear “sorry” as indicating that people need to repeat themselves. I use it all the time myself. It’s a short form of “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.” We do have a tendency to view those who don’t use the “language of apology” as rude.

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    • My perception is that Canadians tend to have a culture of politeness that’s more similar to the UK than the States — your comment supports that.

      “Canadians are nice” is a stereotype, and I don’t like making sweeping generalizations across nationalities, but I think it’s a nice one to have. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  6. My oldest daughter always says “sorry,” for everything. For just standing in a place whereI need to walk by. I keep telling her to stop it. She doesn’t need to apologize for just being.

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  7. It’s true…Canadians say it a lot! With a different intonation — sore-y…

    I also had to break myself of the habit of saying it a lot, coming from a very angry family where almost anything could (and did) cause offense.

    I now live in NYC-area and I do apologize, still, and am offended when others don’t but realize that each culture is different.

    I do think men are much less conditioned to feel like they need to apologize; women are expected to make everyone happy and comfy. 🙂

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    • The way I heard the Canadian intonation in my mind when I read your comment sounded similar to a Boston accent. But maybe that’s wildly inaccurate! 🙂

      I agree with you that it’s related to social conditioning. For me, that’s one of the most fascinating aspects of sociolinguistics — how culture has a knock-on effect on our speech patterns (and, in turn, identity).

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        • Ah — very different indeed!

          It’s all to do with the vowel pronunciation, isn’t it? And also I guess the fact that Boston has a non-rhotic variety (where the r isn’t pronounced after a vowel).

          I briefly studied some aspects of Canadian and East Coast American accents when I was doing my linguistics degree — I find accents fascinating! 🙂

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  8. If I bumped into someone or almost did, I would certainly say I’m sorry. As a matter of fact, my husband would as well. Unfortunately, many people seem to be in too much of a hurry these days to even realize what they have done.

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  9. This is such an interesting topic. I definitely say “sorry” almost without thinking about the real reason for saying so.. sometimes it’s just a “segue” into the question I am asking. It’s a form of “humbleness” but used too often, maybe I’ve become self-deprecating? xx

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  10. I do find myself apologizing quite often, and it’s something I’ve been trying to be more conscious of. Not that I want to stop saying ‘I’m sorry’ all together, but I want to peel away some of the socialization I’ve had as a woman to feel like I always have to apologize, or that I’m always in the way some how.
    I was reading something somewhere that said “women are prone to use the language of apologizes,” and it’s something that’s been floating around in the back of my mind for a bit.
    It made me think of how often I tend to preface questions or requests with an apology, or if I bump into someone, often when it isn’t even my fault, I’m always the first to say “Oh, sorry.”

    Gender vs. Nationality is an interesting comparison, and I think both certainly play a role in how we are socialized to act. In the end I don’t think it’s possible to pull the two apart to discern which one has greater influence. Both are key facets of a person’s identity, that often overlap to become something else entirely.

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  11. I say “sorry” even when I’m not at fault. I don’t really see it as apologizing. I see it more as just acknowledging that “shit happens,” if that makes sense. As for men, in my experience, they don’t tend to say sorry nearly enough, and on the subway, they really need to stop taking up too much space by spreading their legs.

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    • Interesting to hear your views on “sorry”.

      I rarely take the subway, but I’ve heard that “man-spreading” is a problem! Although, thinking of it, I took the Madrid metro almost every day while I was there recently and encountered nothing but politeness. I wasn’t there for very long though, so my experience may not be representative.

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