Research indicates "why women apologise so much"
by Holly Combe // 30 September 2010, 23:00
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.