The Sociology of Sorry

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.

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