New research by psychologists at the University of Waterloo, found women apologize far more than our male counterparts, and we say “we’re sorry” to strangers a heckuva lot more than we do to family members. In two studies that measured the frequency and reasoning behind apologies, there was a clear-cut gender gap. “Findings suggest men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior,” the Canadian psychologists explained.
So what exactly is this “offensive behavior” women fear they’re unleashing on the world?
“I apologize to people on the subway who bump into them, as though I’ve been offensive to them, simply by taking up space on earth,” says Amy, 32.
“I’ve said sorry to guys I’ve dated for not acknowledging that they’re trying, even if they’re trying and failing,” says Leah, 27.
Sandra Elmoznino, a 27-year-old teacher tells the Wall Street Journal all she has to do is call a friend too early or arrive somewhere a few minutes late and she’s asking forgiveness. “I want to be in everyone’s good graces,” she explains. “It’s an anxiety thing.”
If anxiety stems from lack of control, is it possible women see apologizing as a form of taking back the reins? “For women, apologizing is a way of reconnecting with someone whose feelings you have hurt, however inadvertently,” writes psychologist Sam Margulies on his blog at Psychology Today. “A breach in the relationship is avoided and the relationship continues undisturbed. Neither the woman offering nor the woman receiving the apology regard it as unusual but rather see it as a routine aspect of relationships.”
For men, it’s just the opposite. “Men tend to view apologies as humiliating and a loss of face,” suggests Margulies. “Men are more conscious of the impact of what they say on how others perceive their power position or lack of power. So for a man to acknowledge that he has done something wrong often means that he feels diminished in the eyes of those who hear the apology.”
Another reason women choose to eat crow is they know how good it feels to be on the receiving end of an apology. If you’ve ever apologized to a stranger or a friend—the two biggest recipients of “I’m sorry”‘s according to the study—you know there’s a good chance you’ll get one back, a fact that literally makes women feel good. In a report published in the Medscape Psychiatry Journal, researcher Matthew Whited found that getting an apology has physiological (calming) benefits for females. Women’s heart rates are immediately lowered after hearing an apology, while men, on the other hand, get more riled up. They really don’t like it.
That may explain why Margulies’s advice for men on apologizing to women involves an acting lesson: “Say, ‘I was wrong and I am sorry that I hurt your feelings and I feel terrible that I have done something that has hurt you.'” Then he adds, “It will help here if you actually look remorseful.”
As for women, Karina Schumann, a researcher on the Waterloo University study, advises toning it down: “If you’re constantly apologizing, people may see you as too polite or weak, that you’re supplicating to another person,” she tells Rodale.