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."