Apologizing less = privilege?

A study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada shows that women do, in fact, apologize more frequently than men do. This isn’t exactly news, as it’s already a widely-accepted stereotype. The surprising result, though, was that women and men are equally as likely to apologize when they believe they’ve done something requiring an apology; the difference is that men are less likely to believe that they’ve done something requiring an apology:

If you think you hear women saying “I’m sorry” more than men, you’re right. Women apologize more often than men do, according to a new study.

But it’s not that men are reluctant to admit wrongdoing, the study shows. It’s just that they have a higher threshold for what they think warrants reparation. When the researchers looked at the number of apologies relative to the number of offenses the participants perceived they had committed, the researchers saw no differences between the genders.

“Men aren’t actively resisting apologizing because they think it will make them appear weak or because they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions,” said study researcher Karina Schumann, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. “It seems to be that when they think they’ve done something wrong they do apologize just as frequently as when women think they’ve done something wrong. It’s just that they think they’ve done fewer things wrong.”

Some bloggers are of the opinion that this means that men are displaying male privilege in their lack of ability to notice when they’ve done something wrong. As Jill of Feministe noted, “So it’s not just that women have a knee-jerk “I’m Sorry” reflex — it’s that men really don’t think they have anything to be sorry for.”

This… isn’t really the case, though. As noted later in the article,

Schumann and her colleagues conducted two studies to see if genders do indeed differ in how often they apologize, and if so, why this might be.

In one, 33 university students ages 18 to 44 kept an online dairy for 12 days documenting whether they apologized or did something they thought required an apology, even if they didn’t actually say they were sorry. They also kept track of how often they felt someone had committed an offensive act against them that warranted an apology.

Women apologized more and reported committing more offensive acts, but both men and women apologized about 81 percent of the time when they deemed their actions offensive.

Men were also less likely to report being victims of wrongdoing. This led the researchers to investigate whether men are just not offended as easily, and less likely to think they’ve done something objectionable.

(emphasis mine)

Interestingly, I was made aware of this story from a Tweet by Amanda Marcotte, in which she also claims that the study is proof of men’s inability to get past their own ever-present male privilege:

Ha! Study shows not just that men apologize less, but it’s basically because of the blindness of privilege.

If the results were indeed the shining example of male privilege in action that some feminist bloggers are inexplicably painting them to be, the men involved would not have reported being the “victims or wrongdoing” less frequently as women did, or just as frequently as they believed others to be deserving of an apology. The men in question simply do not determine the same things to be worthy of an apology as women do, whether the alleged offense was directed at them, or by them. What is certainly worth noting, though:

Women might have a lower threshold for what requires an apology because they are more concerned with the emotional experiences of others and in promoting harmony in their relationships, Schumann speculated.

Here’s what I think: the results of the study are interesting, and feministall bloggers need to carefully read articles before they blog or Tweet about them.

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28 Responses to Apologizing less = privilege?

  1. elementary_watson says:

    And then there is the possibility that one of the male privileges is that people really *do* commit fewer acts worthy of an apology against men than women …

    *And* the possibility that men wrote down fewer acts of doing wrong themselves because they really *did* commit fewer acts of wrong doing than women.

    In my view, everything beyond the statement “men and women apologize for the same amount of perceived wrong doings and women apologize more” seems to be highly speculative.

  2. machina says:

    Another explanation is that men simply have fewer social interactions than women, so that they have fewer opportunities to do something wrong or be wronged themselves.

  3. Melissa says:

    Yeah, you pose a good possibility, but there are way too many variables here to make any definite conclusions about the reason for the disparity. (But you’re right; Filipovic and Marcotte shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions either.)

    If it were me, the next step in my research would be attempting to define what specific acts women deem apology-worthy, and which ones men do.

  4. David K says:

    and feminist bloggers need to carefully read articles before they blog or Tweet about them.
    Absolutely – and that applies to everyone about any study of course.
    People should also remember: “in general and on average (mean/median/mode)”
    Pepper with your salt anyone? 😉
    The studies, detailed online Sept. 21 in the journal Psychological Science, were small and involved only university students, so the findings might not be applicable to all men and women in general.

    I think we should also keep in mind what kind of “wrongdoing” (which has connotations of all kinds of “offences” from stuff that could land you in prison on down) this study actually covered:
    In the second study, 120 undergraduates rated how severe they thought a particular offensive was. For instance, they had to imagine they woke their friend up late at night, and because of the sleep disturbance, the friend did poorly on an interview the next day. Women rated the offenses as more severe than men did, and women were also more likely to say the friend deserved an apology.
    Does anyone remember the episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ where Larry gets in trouble over phoning someone after 10 pm?
    “You can’t call someone after 10pm, that’s the cut off point!”
    “Well, gee – I always worked that 10.30 was the cut off point….”
    ect.

    It’s a pity the real paper is behind a paywall, because I suspect, but cannot prove, that most of the disagreement between male and female evaluations on what merited apology came in the “less serious” end of the spectrum, with closer agreement further up.

    As far as the “male privilege” aspect goes, well it is the privilege of the powerful not to apologise when they do something wrong (even by their own avowed standards) and it’s the lot of the less-powerful to have apologies extracted from them (even when they are right.) This can happen in any group, irrespective of who it’s members are, that’s been well documented. I’m sure everyone has an example of a situation they have been in where they had to apologise, just because…. and they hadn’t (don’t think) they had anything to be sorry for.

    • April says:

      As far as the “male privilege” aspect goes, well it is the privilege of the powerful not to apologise when they do something wrong (even by their own avowed standards) and it’s the lot of the less-powerful to have apologies extracted from them (even when they are right.)

      Agreed that extracting apologies can be used to further oppress those with less power, and that those in more powerful, or privileged, positions, are less likely to be made to apologize or feel that an apology is necessary. However, I think the important thing to consider in this particular study is that men also felt that fewer wrongdoings were committed against them. It doesn’t seem to be that the issue is men not taking responsibility for wrongdoings, otherwise they’d be likely to have higher numbers of what they deemed to be offensive behaviors against themselves.

  5. Melissa says:

    “those in more powerful, or privileged, positions, are less likely to be made to apologize or feel that an apology is necessary.”

    No freakin’ kidding. See: the Catholic church.

  6. Paul says:

    I think an interesting tangent to this research could be “who’s more likely to hold a grudge”

    • April says:

      I would make the un-verified guess that women hold more grudges, because if the results of this study are indicative of the behavior of the larger population, it would suggest that women will often feel even more wronged when not receiving an apology they feel they deserve. I would (and do) personally have a hard time letting go of the feeling that an issue is unresolved, band is only unresolved because of what I may perceive to be the stubbornness of my male partner, for example.

      That’s not to say men don’t hold grudges, or that my experience and methods of reacting to offenses against me are shared by all women.

  7. Jim says:

    “Ha! Study shows not just that men apologize less, but it’s basically because of the blindness of privilege.”

    It does indeed show the blindness of privilege. In this case it shows Amanda’s blindness to her own female privilege. She assumes that the female standard of what deserves an apology is the norm, and by in large it is. Isn’t that one of the primary indicators of privilege?

    This alone validates the authorship of that tweet.

    • April says:

      This reminds me of the claim that women believe they are morally superior to men, and that women are often seen as the “moral guide” in a way.

      Interesting point.

    • Jim says:

      I call that “mommy privilege”> Mothers naturally dictate standards to kids, and litle girls identify with mmmy and think they are entitled, rather than authorized, to do the same, as if it’s a feature of gender rather than realtional roles.

      They see the same pattern in elementary school, so it gets re-inforced. This is a good reason for very severe affirmative action in hiring male teachers only for the next decade or so, across the country.

    • Paul says:

      Until society gets over it’s “men anywhere near a child = pedophiles” paranoia, I doubt such a thing will occur.

      Unfortunatly.

    • Jim says:

      This one is a battle of inches. For every accusation there is an accuser. That’s who we attack. For every accusation, there is someone who sees something sexual in the situation, either because it’s observed or because it’s projected. Let the accuser prove she’s not a perv.

  8. Danny says:

    Some bloggers are of the opinion that this means that men are displaying male privilege in their lack of ability to notice when they’ve done something wrong. As Jill of Feministe noted, “So it’s not just that women have a knee-jerk “I’m Sorry” reflex — it’s that men really don’t think they have anything to be sorry for.”
    A feminist that instantly attributes a gendered difference to male privilege/female oppression. That survey could have said that men are more likely to eat mint chocolate chip ice cream that women and you could count on one of them to say that such a result reflects that women are oppressed into not liking mint chocolate chip ice cream. Not surprising at all. Jim has said before over at Feminist Critics that the word privilege is often used as bludgeon rather than a tool of examination. I think this is one of those cases.

    (EDIT): In relation to what Daisy says below I think its a matter of how the idea of sympathy relates to gender, not privilege. Unless you want to argue that men/boys having most traces of showing sympathy shamed right out of us under threat of having our manhood questioned is a privilege. That would be like arguing that women/girls being socialized to show sympathy instead of offering a solution is a female privilege of not being expected to offer a solution which is bull.(/EDIT)

    Men were also less likely to report being victims of wrongdoing.
    That would be part of the script of being a man. Speak up to say you’ve been wronged and you fail at being a man.

    • April says:

      That would be part of the script of being a man. Speak up to say you’ve been wronged and you fail at being a man.

      I hadn’t thought of that point in this situation. That could have something to do with it. Do you think that means that men and women are more likely to, at least “deep down,” believe that, more or less, the same things are offensive to them, though?

    • Danny says:

      Do you think that means that men and women are more likely to, at least “deep down,” believe that, more or less, the same things are offensive to them, though?
      Probably so. What I think happens is that when we are pushed into our respective gender roles the neutral sense of justice that should rule is buried under what various parts of society think is justice, based on gender.

      You end up with people thinking they can’t speak up about something because their gender role tells them “that’s the way its supposed to be so even if I feel wronged I can’t complain”.

      This is how you get both men and women in abusive relationships thinking that because of their gender (He thinks, “If I were a real man she would not attack me.” while she thinks “If I were a real woman he wouldn’t have to hit me to keep me in line.”) they deserve to be treated that way while seeming to miss the point that its not what kind of man or woman someone is that should prevent them from being abused. What should prevent them from being abused is the simple fact that it is wrong to abuse anyone under any circumstance.

    • JutGory says:

      “Do you think that means that men and women are more likely to, at least “deep down,” believe that, more or less, the same things are offensive to them, though?”

      Actually, no. As machina suggested above, women may have more social interractions. I do not know that I agree with that specifically, but women tend to be more group-oriented and men tend to be more independent. If that is true, women would be more attuned to any kind of disruption in the social interraction and expect that it needs to be accounted for. On the other side, men would more likely blow it off as nothing serious (as an unintentional offense is not “personal” because the man considers himself as independent). For that reason, I think men are probably less likely to hold grudges.

      Of course, none of this is to suggest that one side is right and the other is wrong about whether an act was offensive. It just suggests that there may be no “true” measure.
      -Jut

    • Danny says:

      Jut:I do not know that I agree with that specifically, but women tend to be more group-oriented and men tend to be more independent. If that is true, women would be more attuned to any kind of disruption in the social interraction and expect that it needs to be accounted for. On the other side, men would more likely blow it off as nothing serious (as an unintentional offense is not “personal” because the man considers himself as independent). For that reason, I think men are probably less likely to hold grudges.
      But it seems to me that the tendencies of men and women you speak of is a result of how men and women are raised. I think the gendered influence of a man or woman’s upbringing overtakes that “deep down” feeling we have. Like they do have a reaction, they want to say something, they want to do something about it but due to the upbringing (those tendencies you speak of) we don’t.

      For that reason, I think men are probably less likely to hold grudges.
      As a side note I think its more a matter that men are probably less likely to say something about their grudges. (IE “If I talk about being done wrong I’ll be seen as weak.”)

      Of course, none of this is to suggest that one side is right and the other is wrong about whether an act was offensive. It just suggests that there may be no “true” measure.
      I dig.

  9. Danny says:

    Jim:This one is a battle of inches. For every accusation there is an accuser. That’s who we attack. For every accusation, there is someone who sees something sexual in the situation, either because it’s observed or because it’s projected. Let the accuser prove she’s not a perv.

    Looks like that reply tree got too long.

    And that is what makes it an uphill battle Jim. When she makes that accusation she is already at the moral high ground (which someone mentioned above about the assumption that women are morally superior to men). When that accusation is made people don’t think about the validity of it they just go for the low hanging fruit which is to assume that since he is male he must have had some ill intent for that child.

    Maybe its because they really don’t care about men. Maybe its because they like to use the “men can do no right and women can do no wrong” mentality to their advantage. Maybe its because they are more concerned about looking like they are doing the right thing rather than actually doing the right thing (that would explain why they just go with the assumption rather than actually check it out). Who knows.

    • Jim says:

      I think it’s simpler than that. I think it’s just about retaining control over children. This is the female equivalent of sexual harrassment in the workplace, trying to keep men out of a setting where we have traditionally been excluded or keeping women out of a setting where they have been traditionally excluded. Excluded or absent, it is the same thing here. Same shit different toilet.

  10. Are they counting the “I’m sorry you feel that way,” stuff? Grey area, but I think lots of our apologies are *sympathetic* and don’t actually mean we regret doing something.

    Most recent example from my own life”

    “My poor poodle is sick, he vomited all morning!”

    “Ohhh, I’m so sorry!”

    I know the poodle being sick is not my fault. I say “I’m sorry” as a shortcut to let my friend know I have sympathy for her situation.

    If they counted those instances also, the study is kinda lopsided, I’d say.

    The interesting thing (to me) is what men say in a similar situation instead… I notice they don’t say they’re sorry, they offer a solution: “Maybe you should take him to the vet!” would be an example. They aren’t any less sympathetic, but to women, it can often sound that way (of course she knows she can take him to the vet, but what she wants to do is vent her fears, not ask for advice)… And didn’t all those dopey Mars and Venus books by whats-his-name already cover this? 😛

    • Danny says:

      The interesting thing (to me) is what men say in a similar situation instead… I notice they don’t say they’re sorry, they offer a solution: “Maybe you should take him to the vet!” would be an example.
      On the money Daisy. Men are socialized to show support by offering a solution and women seem to be socialized to show support by offering sympathy. Each gender doing what they think they are supposed to do.

    • Jim says:

      “Grey area, but I think lots of our apologies are *sympathetic* and don’t actually mean we regret doing something.”

      HUGE important distinction. The problem is what conceptual “grammar” the listener is using. If the listener interprets the sympathetic apolgy as ingratiating behavior, that makes the perosn apologizing look subordinate at best, and if the listener hears an apology from someone who clearly is not at fault, the perosn apologizing has just positined him/herself as being a little loose with the truth. Neither is very good.

      The way out is a little more precision. “It’s a shame that happened “offers sympathy, but not much, not too much; and also deletes the speaker from the matter being sympathized over altogether.

      ” They aren’t any less sympathetic, but to women, it can often sound that
      way ”

      At best it may sound this way. If I get that when i am just complaining about soemthing, it sounds intrusive and directive. I would be surprised if women didn’t experience this too, and also experience it as patronizing.

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