- OCTOBER 18, 2010
I'm Very, Very, Very Sorry ... Really?
We Apologize More to Strangers Than Family, and Why Women Ask for Forgiveness More Than Men
I'd like to tell the man whose cab I stole in the rain last week that I'm very sorry. But to my mom, whose driving I criticized recently? Not so much.
I'm in good company on this. According to new research from Canadian psychologists, people apologize about four times a week. But, on average, they offer up these apologies much more often to strangers (22% of the time) than to romantic partners (11%) or family members (7%). The only folks we apologize to more? Friends (46%).
Why is it so hard to say "I'm sorry" to someone we love? Ask Phil Peachey. He knew he was in trouble when he woke up one morning to find his wife banging utensils around the kitchen. What was wrong? "Nothing," she said. He asked her again. She gave him the cold shoulder.
Then he came up with the answer: Pinot Grigio—a lot of it—which he'd drunk the night before. Had he really told her he didn't trust her sense of direction and called her "stupid"?
Uh-oh. Mr. Peachey, a 47-year-old real-estate broker in Orlando, Fla., quickly offered his best apology: "Is there anyone who would like a new pair of shoes?"
"Nothing says 'I'm sorry' like Christian Dior," he says.
Odds are your mother taught you that it's important to apologize if you've done something wrong—and to graciously accept an apology when one is offered. The act of making amends is crucial to maintaining harmony in both our personal relationships and the world at large.
Apologies are so important that many hospitals train their staffs to say they are sorry to patients and their families following a medical mistake because they've found it deters malpractice lawsuits. Economists have shown that companies offering a mea culpa to disgruntled customers fare better than ones offering financial compensation.
But apologies can be complicated. They're not always forthcoming, or even sincere. Making matters worse, there's a gender "apology gap": Men and women have different approaches and different expectations when it comes to acts of contrition.
Conventional wisdom says women apologize too much, and men don't apologize often enough. Women are good at nurturing relationships, the thinking goes, while men are too egotistical to say they're sorry or have a different take on social graces. Yet there's no proof that women are better than men at apologizing—they just do it more often, sometimes for inconsequential offenses.
Two small studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, published last month by the journal Psychological Science, indicate men are just as willing as women to apologize if they think they've done something wrong. Men just have a different idea of what defines "something wrong."
In the first study, 66 men and women kept daily diaries and recorded each time they committed—or were on the receiving end—of an offense. They also noted whether an apology was issued. The outcome: Women were offended more often, and they offered more apologies for their own behavior. Yet men were just as likely as women to apologize if they believed they'd done something wrong.
Saying 'I'm Sorry'
A 'comprehensive' apology is more likely to win forgiveness, researchers say. There are eight elements:
- Acceptance of responsibility
- Admission of wrongdoing
- Acknowledgment of harm
- Promise to behave better
- Request for forgiveness
- Offer of repair
Source: University of Waterloo
In the second study, 120 subjects imagined committing offenses, from being rude to a friend to inconveniencing someone they live with. The men said they would apologize less frequently. The researchers concluded the men had a higher threshold for what they found offensive. "We don't think that women are too sensitive or that men are insensitive," says Karina Schumann, one of the study's authors. "We just know that women are more sensitive."
Sandra Elmoznino, 27, a New York City teacher, says she apologizes all the time, whether for calling a friend too early in the morning or showing up two minutes late. "I want to be in everyone's good graces," she says. "It's an anxiety thing."
Recently, though, Ms. Elmoznino has begun to feel that the constant apologizing has become a handicap. Her friends tease her about it. Men she has dated find it annoying. Her twin brother told her it makes her look unsure of herself. As a result, she's now making a conscious effort to apologize only when she's really done something wrong. "I don't want to be like the boy who cried wolf," she says.
Funny, the men I spoke with agreed that women are too sensitive, though most of them were reluctant to talk on the record. I promised anonymity, though, and they piped up:
"Apologize? What language is that?"
"Women care too much."
"One of the first requirements of getting into relationships with women is to rehearse saying 'I'm sorry' as many times as possible."
"If a husband speaks in the forest and no one hears him, is he still wrong?"
I pressed on, and asked men to explain exactly why they apologize—when they do:
"To move on."
"To end the drama." (Hmm. This from a man who's apologized recently to me.)
"To be honest, men never—well, almost never—have any idea what we are apologizing for," says Mark Stevens, 63, chief executive of MSCO, a Rye Brook, N.Y., marketing consulting firm.
Mr. Stevens says during his 35-year marriage he has sincerely apologized to his wife, Carol, just five times—but has said he's sorry an additional 3,500 times. He calls these mea culpas "fraudulent apologies." They go something like this: "I don't know why you're unhappy, but I'm sorry."
"Ninety percent of apologies are to keep the peace," he adds. "How can you have a sincere apology if you don't know what you've done?"
He still remembers when, years ago, he and his wife agreed to buy a vacation home in Vermont and consider it their anniversary gift to each other. On the night of the anniversary, though, he found his wife slamming silverware into a drawer. (Sound familiar?) His transgression: He hadn't bought her a gift.
"Despite the agreement we both made, I apologized because I realized she was hurting and I had overlooked something," Mr Stevens says. ("He has no clue," says Ms. Stevens, 57. "Sometimes I'll just let it go.")
Mr. Peachey, of the Pinot Grigio episode, says he also was trying to do his best. To show remorse, he took his wife to the mall and bought her the shoes—and an iPad. "That was a $1,000 insult," he calculated.
Yet his wife, Rochelle, the 46-year-old director of an Internet dating site, says all she really wanted was the apology: "I told him, had he just put his arms around me and said he was so sorry he screwed up and that he loved me, that would have been enough."
Need help with your own apologies? Here are some tips:
Know what you did wrong. If you're not sure, ask.
Show real remorse. Don't say: "I'm sorry you are hurt," which suggests the person is too sensitive. Say: "I am sorry I hurt you."
Don't be defensive. Don't use the word "but," as in, "I am sorry, but…"
Offer to make changes. It helps to say, sincerely, that you will try not to make the same offense again.
Don't throw in the kitchen sink. If you're the one who wants the apology, stick to the matter at hand. Don't bring up past slights.
Try humor. A little self-deprecation can go a long way.
Don't delay. Just do it. An imperfect apology is better than none at all.—Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at Bonds@wsj.com and follow her column at www.Facebook.com/EBernsteinWSJ.
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