The Sociology of Sorry

A puzzling ad campaign condemns the apology—and women along with it.
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Last week, Pantene, the shampoo brand, released an ad about the gendered use of language. "Why are women always apologizing?" the commercial asks. It goes on to showcase women saying "I'm sorry" for everyday activities—asking questions, making points during meetings—as mournful music plays in the background.

The ad has been viewed on YouTube, so far, more than 2 million times. It has also proven surprisingly un-controversial. Here are some of the headlines—from news stories and think pieces—that announced the ad when it came out: 

This is Lean In logic, essentially, as sponsored by shampoo. Stop doing X, ladies! Because it makes men see you as Y. The #ShineStrong ad, it's worth noting—shine as in your hair, and also, presumably, as in your spirit—is a follow-up to Pantene's 2013 "Labels Against Women" ad, which bemoaned the familiar double standards ("boss" vs. "bossy"! "persuasive" vs. "pushy"!) women face at work and beyond.

The irony that seemed to be lost on the brand in its sequel spot is that "apologetic" is yet another label, yet another double standard that sticks, stubbornly, to women—the assumption in all the stickiness being, of course, that apologizing is inherently pathetic. Lean in, the ad suggests, shinily, to your own entitlement. Apologetic excess, in Pantene's presentation of the office/the home/the world, is yet another thing—besides being too timid, besides being too accommodating, besides being too concerned with the smoothness of our faces and the shininess of our hair—that women should be apologizing for. 

Or, well ... not apologizing. But also not not-apologizing? Sorrynotsorry? Sorry for not being sorry? Sorry for not saying sorry? Something like that. It is incredibly confusing. (Sorry.) What we we have come to, the shampoo brand has helpfully reminded us, is an apologia for apologies for apologias for ... I don't even know: a weird whirligig of contrition that spins along indefinitely, fueled by the forces of power dynamics and gendered behavior and probably The Patriarchy, because always The Patriarchy, and everything blurs, and then everyone feels bad about the blurring, and then everyone feels bad about feeling bad about the blurring, and we whirl and we whirl and it's a whole sorry mess.

One of the major problems with all this—besides the one embedded in the insistent equation of apology with weakness, and stubbornness with strength—is that "sorry" is, at this point, pretty much meaningless. As a word, "sorry" has entered that puckish pantheon of Terms That Seem to Say a Lot but Actually Say Very Little. "Innovation" is one of those terms. So is, if you believe the purveyors of the most existentially troubling social network yet invented, "yo." So is that classic of text messages and chats the Internet over: "LOL." Which no longer indicates "laughing out loud" so much as it indicates ... well, anything you want it to. "LOL" could mean "just kidding." Or "your joke was funny (but not 'haha' funny)." Or just "I'm happy." Or just "I'm hungry." 

Which: LOL. 

Anyway, "sorry" is similar: It is semantically supple. It can be meaningful, but only in a particular context. It can indicate, depending on the circumstances in which it's deployed, deep regret—I'm sorry I lied, I'm sorry I cheated, I'm sorry I ate your plums—but it could also indicate contrition of a much more casual variety. I'm sorry I bumped into you. I'm sorry I yelled at you, but the skinny latte I ordered had obviously been made with whole milk. As Ani Vrabel recently wrote in The Huffington Post,

At some point, I began using "sorry" as a synonym for "excuse me." It came to mean, "I didn't see you there and you startled me!" and "I have a question" and "I'm carrying so many things that I'm taking up more space on the subway than usual." It rarely meant, "I made a poor decision or did something wrong and it impacted you negatively. I recognize this and feel bad about it and would like to make things better between us."

Which brings us, as discussions of such things so often will, to Erving Goffman. In his Relations in Public, the oft-cited sociologist defined several key elements of the apology in, as he put it, "its fullest form." These were: "expression of embarrassment or chagrin; clarification that one knows what conduct has been expected and sympathizes with the application of negative sanction; verbal rejection, repudiation, and disavowal of the wrong way of behaving along with vilification of the self that so behaved."

This—a seminal sense of "sorry," from a seminal sociologist—has informed our thinking on apologies pretty much since Goffman proposed it. Relations in Public suggested a kind of doubleness to the act of apology. The apology was on the one hand, Goffman wrote, an admission of guilt; it was, on the other, an affirmation of the social rules that occasioned the guilt in the first place. And that duality has, in turn, pervaded our sense of what apologizing is all about. It's a kind of Cartesian fallacy, stubborn and sticky and translated to the world of contrition. 

So here, again, is the problem (and here is also why I mentioned Goffman and Descartes, for which #sorrynotsorry): Many critics of the culture of sorry, and many critics of the women who participate in the culture of sorry, seem to be reading my casual apologies—and yours, maybe—in the Goffmanian way. They assume that when I apologize for my clumsiness or my lateness or my plum-eating (they were delicious, by the way), I am tacitly admitting to some kind of profound character flaw. They assume that my sorry is symptomatic. That it is, you know, A Confidence Thing. 

It is not. I assure you. My casual apology—I'll just speak for myself here—is not a castigation, of myself or my self-worth or my gender; it is not necessarily—as a Jezebel article, presuming to speak for all of us, put it last year—an indication of "our guilt complexes and inner Pollyannas."

Yet combine Goffman's influence with contrition's LOL factor—the sly slitheriness of "sorry"—and you end up with ... confusion. Sorry amounts of it, actually. Goffman's guilt-infused view of the apology—"chagrin"! "negative sanction!"—simply doesn't ring true in a world that finds casual apologists running rampant on city buses and in supermarkets and at every intersection of a world that is moving and messy. It certainly doesn't ring true to me. I bumped into you on the sidewalk this morning; I'm sorry to have done that, but I am not—despite and because of my respect for you and our shared humanity—"embarrassed or chagrined" about it. I ran 10 minutes late for our coffee; I wish I'd been on time, but I'll save the hairshirt for, you know, another day. 

This is all to say that our assumptions about What Apologies Mean are often completely misaligned with the way we actually use apologies in our day-to-day lives. And, more to the point, with the way women use apologies in our day-to-day lives. As Jessica Bennett, who works with the Lean In initiative, put it in a Time essay about the Pantene ad

Sorry is a crutch — a tyrannical lady-crutch. It’s a space filler, a hedge, a way to politely ask for something without offending, to appear “soft” while making a demand. It falls in the same category as “I hate to ask” or “I know this is a stupid question” or another version of “No offense, but” or ending your statements with a question. It’s bled into our text messages (“sorrrrrryy!!!!!!”), our emails (“SO SORRY for the delay”), our emoji (you know, the bashful “eeek” face), and our workplaces. Even the rise of “sorry-not-sorry” — a joke, and hashtag, that implies I’m saying sorry but I don’t really mean it — is couched in apology. (Can’t we even own the apology–or the insult?!)

You could read this as it's intended—as evidence that, as the essay's headline argues, "Women Really Need to Stop Apologizing"—but you could also read it as evidence of the nuance wrapped up in our sorriness. "Maybe 'sorry' wouldn’t sound 'defensive or unsure,'" The New York Times put it yesterday, "if everybody understood it simply as a nice gesture rather than as an actual mea culpa."

Which brings us back to Pantene and its ad. In 1997, long after it occurred to women to want shiny hair and shortly after it occurred to them to apologize for that, Deborah Levi wrote an NYU Law Review article called "The Role of Apology in Mediation." In it, she proposed what she called "a typology of apology," a breakout of the different forms of contrition people rely on in their day-to-day negotiations with each other. She identified four: "tactical" (acknowledging the other person's suffering in order to gain credibility and influence the other person's bargaining behavior); "explanation" (attempting to excuse the offender's behavior and render it understandable to the other party); "formalistic" (capitulating to an authority figure); and "happy-ending" (accepting responsibility for the bad behavior and expressing regret for it). 

We could add others. There are many others. There's the (in)famous non-apology apology. There's the sarcastic apology. Most importantly, though, there's the gestural apology that the Times alludes to—and that the Pantene ad condemns. The low-stakes "sorry" that indicates not contrition, but ... cooperation. The kind that acknowledges that people, being people, will screw up. The kind that hopes that people, being people, will forgive. The kind that isn't freighted with power or gender or blame, but that simply helps the world to whirl a little more smoothly. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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