Sorry seems to be the easiest word for women

Opinion: women are more guilty than men of unnecessary apologising

Facebook chief Sheryl Sandberg. “Her ‘didn’t mean to upset you’ was patronising and, worse than that, a lie.” Photograph: EPA/Money Sharma

Facebook chief Sheryl Sandberg. “Her ‘didn’t mean to upset you’ was patronising and, worse than that, a lie.” Photograph: EPA/Money Sharma


Last week Sheryl Sandberg gave us a perfect lesson in how not to apologise. The Facebook executive declared that the experiment that manipulated the emotions of the website’s users had been “poorly communicated. And for that communication we apologise. We never meant to upset you.”

This was bad on four scores. She didn’t take personal responsibility. She didn’t say sorry for the thing itself. Her “didn’t mean to upset you” was patronising, and worse than that, a lie.

The experiment was specifically designed to upset some users, by showing them negative comments.

That was the whole point.

A few weeks before this feeble apology Ms Sandberg was in Cannes telling women to stop saying sorry quite so often. She showed the new feminist Pantene ad, in which assorted women gratuitously apologise. “Sorry, can I ask a question?” they say.

Ms Sandberg seems to have taken the advertisement too much to heart. Its point is not that women should refuse to say sorry for massive things, but that they should stop apologising for non-existent ones. Unnecessary apologising is a drag both for the giver and receiver, and women are more guilty of it than men.

More guilty

Yet, according to research by Canadian psychologists, the reason women say sorry all the time is that they feel in the wrong all the time. Both sexes apologise equally for their misdemeanours, the difference is that women feel they have committed more of them.

Just now, as I was at my desk contemplating this research, my phone went. It was a cold caller asking me to take part in some brainless survey. “So sorry. I can’t help you with that. Sorry,” I said.

As I slammed down the phone I marvelled at having just said the dread word twice, though contrary to the research findings, I didn’t feel even slightly in the wrong. What I meant was: how dare you call me when I’m trying to work?

I suspect the vast majority of office apologies, delivered by both sexes, are insincere. They are a verbal tic, and an annoying one we’d be better off without.

To prove it I’ve just searched the 13,000 messages in my email and found “sorry” occurs in 1,225. It is true that the majority of these were sent by women, but that is because they are mainly in the sent box, and were written by me.

It turns out I apologise endlessly for the same thing. “Sorry for the late reply.” “Sorry for my silence.” “Sorry to have been so slow replying to this.”

While I constantly say sorry for being late, the messages in my inbox apologise for having been sent at all. “Sorry for the mass email.” “Sorry to contact you out of the blue.” Such insincere regret makes these messages even less welcome; and when I don’t reply they are followed by a more annoying “Sorry to chase” or “Really sorry to pester”.

Not only do people apologise for sending emails, they also like to say sorry for their length. “Sorry to ramble,” they write, or “Sorry if this message reads tersely, I’m typing on a tiny keyboard”. Such apologies make you want to say: well don’t ramble. Or: learn to use your iPhone.

Even automated emails frequently come with an apology attached: “I’m sorry I’m out of the office.”

I even got a postmaster message saying “I’m sorry to have to inform you that your message could not be delivered”, and despite the first person singular, the message was signed “The mail system”.

Of all the email-related apologies, the only one I could find that merited one was from someone who had hit “reply all” by mistake sending a private message to everybody. Given the embarrassment caused, the apology was a little terse: “Sorry for the mass cc.”

Only a tiny handful of the other messages were about things that people genuinely felt sorry about. Most of these came from women, and most would have been better not sent at all. “Sorry - memory in meltdown.” “Sorry not to have contributed more in the meeting – having a bad day!”

Men’s non apologies

Less sincere – though no less unwarranted – were various non-apologies I’ve had from men. “I am sorry to have to say this but . . .” the messages begin, usually leading to something insulting.

One was several hundred words of intemperate rage – to which I replied with a “sorry” message of my own that I suspect Ms Sandberg might have liked. “Dear Mr X,” I wrote. “I’m sorry if you didn’t enjoy my column.” The brevity, the understatement, the use of the conditional, and the insincerity were so gloriously passive aggressive that I felt proud of myself. Nothing girlie in that apology. I hope I made it clear to the reader: I was not sorry. Not one bit. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)

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