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.
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).
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?