Research indicates "why women apologise so much"

by Holly Combe // 30 September 2010, 23:00

Tags: conformity, men, psychology, relationships, research reporting, social conventions, social science, women

The Live Science website has reported on two related studies exploring how often women and men apologise. In summary, the first study involved the use of online diaries and found no difference between women and men when it came to the number of apologies in relation to the number of offenses the participants perceived themselves to have committed. However, a gender difference was shown in terms of how often participants perceived a wrongdoing requiring an apology (with the women seeing more wrongdoing). This led to the second study, where participants rated the severity of various described offences, and this also showed an apparent difference (again, with the women seeing more wrongdoing).

To be fair, I have not seen the full details of the study and may not be able to as they are due to appear in the forthcoming issue of the Psychological Science journal. (Unfortunately, this means only people who are lucky enough to have Athens access or are able to pay a premium for content will be able to see them.) However, judging by what has been reported on so far, it has to be said that the samples for both these studies were small, with just 33 students taking part in the first and 120 in the second. This surely means that (as the report points out) they may not be applicable to the wider population anyway. It is also notable that there is also no mention of people who don't fit into the usual binary divides and the examples given in the discussion of the results are both heterosexist and sexist, as they only use the insights in relation to women with male partners (more on that later).

That said, there are clearly a variety of explanations that can be put forward when it comes to interpreting these results. Obviously, some of these are bound to tediously run with the idea that women are easily offended, uptight and socially conforming while men are apparently wild free spirits who don't let things get to them and are more inclined to cruise through life without so much concern for what others think. Personally, I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with what Amanda Marcotte said about this on Facebook* today:

The evidence is far more in favor of the differences between male and female behavior being socialized than being "natural". I agree that women are more attendant to the little things in social interactions, but that's not because we're wired differently, but because we pay a price if we don't. That price is often the word "bitch", for instance. Women are often economically and socially disempowered in their relationships with men, and so they have to spend more time greasing the wheels...

There is also a lot of social pressure on us to be the ones to do that social greasing. Indeed, it seems to me that women who don't jump to the beat of social expectations or play nicely without inconveniencing or offending others are often judged as social failures. Meanwhile, men who fail to notice things or show sensitivity seem to be traditionally judged as normal. Indeed, we've all seen people stereotyping men in such a way and possibly even complaining about it but is it seen as particularly out of the ordinary? Not if the speculations of Karina Schuumann (the researcher) and Rachael Rettner (the Live Science writer) in the conclusion of the article are anything to go by:

Recognizing that men and women may perceive situations differently may help the genders to get along.

"Neither men nor women are wrong when they disagree about whether or not an offense has occurred or whether or not an apology is desired," Schumann said. "It's just that they have different perceptions of an event that has occurred between them."

When one partner is angry and feeling victimized, thinking, "How can my partner love me if he isn't recognizing what he did," that person should consider that the other partner "might not be seeing the event the same way that they see the event," she said.

"So rather than assuming that your partner can read your mind or read your emotions accurately, you need to communicate to the partner what you're experiencing...and from that communication, hopefully a successful reconciliation process can then occur."

First of all, Rettner seems to be saying that women and men always see things differently so we should expect this as the reality and work from there (a recipe for gender panto if ever I saw one).

Following on from this, Schumann offers up an apparent no-blame approach by saying "neither men nor women are wrong" but then uses an example that implies the onus is actually on women (with male partners) to adapt and consider that "the other partner might not be seeing the event the same way that they see the event". Isn't this an example of training women up in exactly the kind of behaviour that we are supposed to apparently exhibit (i.e. to be more sensitive and inclined to think of others)?

Schumann then goes on to play to the "women expect men to be mind-readers" stereotype by stressing the importance of communication, as if we are somehow bound to be unassertive and need reminding.

With advice like this to contend with, it is hardly a surprise if women end up being quicker to apologise! There may well be some wider truth in the results of this study but I think the predictable way it has been framed goes some way towards helping us understand why the said differences might exist.

Photo by wolvesandrabbits, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.

*Permission to quote from personal page obtained.

Comments From You

Cleckley // Posted 01 October 2010 at 06:02

Schumann & Rettner use the word "may" yet Combe continues with "always".

Further, I see that the term "he" has been emboldened (forming the basis of Combe's analysis). Yet the pronoun game is being played (if a tad sloppily) as Schumann/Rettner continue with the term "partner" and again with "the partner". To me this indicates an attempt at neutrality.

Perhaps they had normatively suggested that communication be bi-directional rather than insinuating that "women expect men to be mind-readers". Sloppily written but, without the benefit of having read the study, perhaps not an indictment of malicious (intent) inequality?

Cleckley // Posted 01 October 2010 at 06:08

Addition: RE: Pronoun Game

Admittedly the term "he" is used. But in sequence we have the following neutral terms used in just those two paragraphs: "partner...partner...person...partner...partner...partner..."

Am I being to pedantic or should we be giving these unfortunate scholars the benefit of the doubt?

polly // Posted 01 October 2010 at 10:13

Or how about a positive spin? Women are better team workers, more aware of others feelings and more willing to take responsiblity for their own actions?

In most environments, I'd see an ability to immediately acknowledge one's own failings as a positive quality. Certainly in the workplace, you need to be aware of colleague's feelings and immediately apologise if you've offended them in some way for good team functioning, otherwise resentments fester and grow. And in any kind of customer service environment an immediate apology and acknowledgement of the customer's concerns can have some who starts off very pissed off eating out of your hand by the end of the conversation.

I'd see a readiness to apologise as a positive leadership skill, not a weakness in any way.

Holly Combe // Posted 01 October 2010 at 10:30

@ Cleckley. I wasn't writing off the actual research so, in terms of the study itself, I would say I have definitely given the benefit of the doubt. (The only doubt I expressed in this respect related to the fact the samples were small.) My issue was clearly with the resulting speculation from the researcher and writer of the article. I thought the framing was problematic but also potentially telling.

On reflection, I admit I should not have used the word "always" in my interpretation of the quote from the article. However, I did say "Rettner seems to be saying that women and men always see things differently" so I think it was apparent that this was my own interpretation of what was being said. Taken with the quote, it was clear that the hyperbole came from me so it hopefully won't aid any misinterpretations. I think I read it that way because I am so used to seeing the populist "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" angle and know only too well how such stories can roll in the press! Still, I shouldn't have added to the potential killing of the subtlety in the article's assertions. It was unhelpful.

Troon // Posted 01 October 2010 at 10:52

@Holly

I don't wish to question the thrust of what is said about the dissemination of the research and its conclusions, but I am a little confused by you stating both that this research claims that women are 'quicker to apologise' (because of the social costs of not doing so) and the findings as you summarised them, which seem to suggest that women are more likely to demand an apology, but equally likely to apologise. Which is being claimed?

If its demanding apologies rather than giving offence, then thinking over my own past relationships, I remember being much more anxious to receive apologies when I felt myself an 'outsider' or was lacking in confidence. But this needn't be gendered, except in so far as security, power and the associated arrogance often are linked to men. Does this study weight in any way for other markers of 'insiderness'-wealth, age ,a attractiveness, numbers of relationships etc., or does it just assume gender is key?

Finally, though, surely if someone feels an apology is needed, it's needed. You might not think the reason is cause to be upset, but the fact that someone is upset because you did something is reason enough to apologise for that harm?

Holly Combe // Posted 01 October 2010 at 10:57

@ Polly. Good point about readiness to apologise being a positive leadership skill. In my experience, the best leaders show sensitivity to colleague's feelings and they're the ones who get results.

Unfortunately, I think the way such positive behaviour is typically framed can sometimes be a stumbling block for women. I think women who show sensitivity often get held up as examples of what should always be expected from women (i.e always having to be "nice" when it isn't expected of men). Worse still, is when co-operative behaviour ends up being presented as if it's a weakness... I'm not saying there aren't macho environments that make it hard for men to be nice without being undermined but it does seem that a male leader who shows humility is given more of a chance to shine without it leading to questions about men as a whole.

Holly Combe // Posted 01 October 2010 at 11:21

@Troon. The part about the social costs of not apologising related only to my own inferences and Amanda Marcotte's (who I quoted). The research findings indicated that women were both quicker to apologise and also "more likely to report being victims of wrongdoing". As I understand it, the second study also revealed women apparently rating various offenses as "more severe" than men.

I don't know if the study weighted any other markers of privilege but I'd definitely be interested to find out...

(@Cleckley. Regardless of the lack of female pronouns used in Schumann's wording, I think the results of the research mean it is fairly apparent that she is pressing for a woman -as the apparently more sensitive partner in the tableau- to be the one to adapt in her explanation)

Sheila // Posted 01 October 2010 at 18:06

@Troon
I think you are being simplistic to say if an apology is needed, it's needed. The fact is that anecdotally all around me in the work place I hear women apologising when a man wouldn't, apologising for others etc. The apology is often accompanied with self-deprecating remarks. This reinforces stereotypes in the workplace about the less good work product of women. I often ask women who report to me not to make the deprecating remarks, just to accept their accountability for whatever it was they apologised for and get on with it. I think apologies in themselves are underrated, but the baggage and assumptions that comes with someone who readily apologises are holding women back in the workplace.

Cleckley // Posted 01 October 2010 at 21:46

@Holly Combe Again, I haven't read the research but whatever conclusions she draws are going to be heavily dependent on Schuumann's research methodology and epistemological stance. I cannot comment on whether there is an intent to draw general conclusions and inferences or if the research has any implications for causality (or the direction of causality). I personally do not think a general rule can be extracted from this type of research proposal and then applied to specific couples. Again (again) - without reading the research or at least the peer review - I um uncertain as to how far we can assume the research should be anything but descriptive. It appears to me that the observable patterns between sensitivity & adaptation are going to be tainted by multivariate relationships. If I'm correct then no general rule CAN be drawn from the research and the researchers will accept that general rules can't apply to individual cases...on this subject. Sadly, that's just an opinion at this stage.

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