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. 

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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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