Thursday, December 15, 2011

I'm sorry: Sometimes not enough, sometimes too much

"I'm sorry" is infamous for its inadequacy. It often seems flippant, insincere, or incomplete, as in "I'm sorry you feel that way" or "I'm sorry, but...". Wayward public figures are notorious for inadequate apologies, especially those that involve a failure to own up to wrongdoingSome argue that a full apology requires many elements, such as acceptance of responsibility, an expression of genuine remorse, an offer to make amends, and an excuse-free explanation. Heartfelt apologies can go a long way in dissolving hostility, encouraging forgiveness, and mending damaged relationships. But they are not always easy to come by.

recent set of studies conducted by Karina Schumann and Michael Ross suggest that men's lower rate of apology is due to a "higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior." In a daily diary study, the researchers found evidence to support the widely-held assumption that women apologize more frequently than men. They also found, however, that women reported committing more offenses than men, and this difference fully accounted for the apology finding. In other words, men apologized for the same proportion of the offenses that they believed they had committed -- they just didn't report committing as many offenses. In a second study, the researchers found further support for the offense threshold hypothesis: Participants were asked to evaluate the severity and apology-deservingness of a recalled offense and three hypothetical offense scenarios (i.e., slacking on a joint project and thus burdening a friend, snapping at a friend when grumpy, and accidentally waking a friend at 3am the night before a job interview). As expected, female participants perceived all of the scenarios as more severe and thus more deserving of apology than male participants.

The offense threshold hypothesis seems like a polite way of saying that men can be a bit oblivious. Importantly, though, male participants in the second study also seemed oblivious to the severity of others' offenses, which led the researchers to speculate that men might simply be less attuned to social offenses in general, while women may be more socially attuned. This idea is also supported by research suggesting that women tend to be more empathic and guilt-prone. Another way to interpret the results, of course, is that women may sometimes be over-attuned, apologizing for things that other people do not find offensive or even notice. The point, though, is that neither gender is "right" per se -- it's just a matter of differing perspectives.

Other obstacles are less gender-specific. It can be difficult to admit being wrong (we are well-equipt with psychological defenses and self-serving biases to protect us from facing this possibility), and it can be scary to make oneself vulnerable to the possibility of rejection, since an apology, no matter how heartfelt, does not always elicit forgiveness.

On the other hand, sometimes apologies come too easily and too frequently, as when we apologize for things that are clearly not our fault, not in our control, or otherwise unworthy of apology. Examples include apologizing for being hurt by someone else's offense ("Sorry for being so sensitive"), apologizing for being bumped into ("Sorry, I was in your way!"), apologizing for failing to be perfect ("Sorry that my shirt is wrinkled"), and apologizing for apologizing ("Sorry, I know I'm saying sorry too much!") -- for more, see this Jezebel article.

I remember the first time I realized that I was an over-apologizer -- during soccer practice as a kid, I said sorry every time I kicked the ball a little too hard or soft or too far to one side. I wasn't even aware that I was doing this until one of my teammates said, "You don't have to say sorry!" and it hit me that my sorries were helping no one, especially not my own confidence. Over the years I have made an effort to cut back on unnecessary apologies. Here is some of the best anti-apology advice I have collected:

1. Say "thank you" instead. When your roommate or significant other does the dishes, rather than apologizing for not having done them yourself (which just burdens them with the need to reassure you), express your gratitude (which makes them feel happy and appreciated, and probably more apt to voluntarily do the dishes again later). This only applies, of course, when you generally do your share of the chores -- if your roommate is in a huff because your never help out, thanking them for what they really should not have had to do may only annoy them further.

2. Save it. Saying sorry too much can trivialize the act of apology, making the important ones carry less weight. Don't cry wolf -- save it for when you really need it, and mean it.

3. Try not to mess up in the first place. Easier said than done, of course. But if you know you have a (preventable) bad habit that negatively affects other people, better to try to avoid doing it in the first place, or at least avoid repeating it, rather than just apologizing after the fact.

4. Embrace your imperfections. You don't have to apologize for having a bad hair day, for spilling on your shirt, or for needing three attempts to parallel park. Read more on self-compassion here and in this older post.

5. Get support. If you are racked with guilt and shame even when you've done nothing wrong, professional support may be helpful for addressing underlying self-worth issues or a history of trauma.

And if you are someone who doesn't apologize frequently or comprehensively enough, you can read more about the art of apology in psychiatrist Aaron Lazare's useful and interesting book, On Apology.

The featured article:

Schumann K, & Ross M (2010). Why women apologize more than men: gender differences in thresholds for perceiving offensive behavior. Psychological science, 21 (11), 1649-55 PMID: 20855900


  1. Interesting stuff here. I've never really thought about what a complete apology would include when I felt that someone else was not sincere enough.

  2. is there a cultural difference, too?

  3. Thanks Snowman! Anonymous, that's a good question. There seems to be evidence of a greater frequency of apology in East Asian cultures compared to Western cultures, but the meaning, function, and efficacy of an apology can differ cross-culturally. For example, see Maddux et al., 2011:

  4. Hi Juli, thanks for the reference.

  5. From the Schumann paper:

    Men and women did not differ in the proportion of offenses they reported in the various relationship categories (χ2s < 1), except for offenses occurring between romantic partners.Women reported more offenses occurring between them and a romantic partner (13.21%) than men reported (4.24%).

    I couldn't tell from the paper, but I wonder if this difference is the real difference-- that the only instance when women have a lower threshold for offensive behavior is in the context of a romantic partner. The 2nd study shows that women take offense more easily for all categories (i think), but these could still be things that their rom-par did to them.

  6. Thanks Little Newt, that's a good point. I wonder what it is about the romantic context that made female participants report more offenses. Power might be a factor, as powerful individuals may be less sensitive to offenses and less likely to apologize, whereas over-apology can be seen as a more submissive behavior. Maybe the gender differences would go away when controlling for power in the relationship.

  7. Thanks for responding and Interesting Point. As always though, it could be that people who report more offenses are necessarily going to be in a power-submissive position, because always being offended by stuff makes it hard to be powerful (alllllllthough it does seem that being offended by stuff puts one in a contrived position of power-- OK new theory: people take offense more easily when they feel powerless, since this makes them feel powerful ). Clearly we're dealing with a complex of attributes, not one Grand Mover. Nevertheless, I'd be interested to see the entire study controlled for "power".