About a month or two ago, I was surfing the internet while waiting for my mother to get ready to go with me to the gym. During this brief time, following from one link to another, I came across a shampoo ad that was, according to the post in which it was embedded, getting a lot of attention on the internet. The ad showed women in everyday situations offering apologies that the makers of the video deemed unnecessary. The title card which introduces the video asks “Why are women always apologizing,” which implies that they are doing something that men don’t.
Sitting at my computer, whiling fifteen or twenty minutes waiting for my mother, I was not in an especially critical mindset. If that week’s viral videos had been cute puppies I would have watched cute puppies. I nodded in implied agreement while watching. While I don’t think I have heard about that particular habit before, it did not surprise me. In women’s studies classes that I took in college, I read about similar studies that examined seeming trivial differences in male and female behavior. Although the video doesn’t say so in so many words, the clear implication is that apologizing makes one appear weak. The title of the video is “Shine Strong.”
This video was still fresh in my mind when I arrived at the gym.
I walked in, grabbed a towel and headed up the short flight of half a dozen steps to the weight lifting area. A man rounded the corner and came down the stairs rapidly as I was going up. He stepped backwards saying, “Sorry.”
I stepped to my right saying, “Sorry.”
Another step to the right on my part and we were able to pass each other on the stairs without incident. This is the sort of thing I wouldn’t have even noticed if I hadn’t seen that video. No one was at fault. He couldn’t have predicted my arrival and I couldn’t see him approach, yet we both apologized. Thanks to the video, I noted that he was male and I was female. I also noticed that he was African-American. He was probably about ten years my junior.
(Aside: Do you, too, dislike the false intimacy of WordPress telling you to “Keep on goin’!” or is it just me?)
A little while later, I took a barbell off the rack. Carrying the barbell, which is awkward, I weaved between the benches to find a location to do some curls where I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way but I could see my form in the mirror. A man was coming from the opposite direction, also weaving around equipment. He turned around a bench at the same time I did and we came nose to nose. With the barbell, it was a bit awkward for me to get out of his way, yet he made no move to do so. I backed up a few inches saying, “Sorry.” He moved forward without acknowledging my presence. To say that I felt slighted would have overstated the case, still there was a very slight unpleasant feeling left by this encounter. Normally, I would dismiss it and think that he had something else on his mind. However, since I was now attuned to this issue I realized that he was male and white.
Going to put the barbell back, I had a nearly identical run in with another man. This time, the man said, “Sorry,” I said, “Sorry,” and the man rapidly stepped backward to allow me to pass. This time it was a black man near my age. This was starting to look to me like it wasn’t a coincidence.
Over the next few weeks, I observed people’s behavior. The gym struck me as a prime location for this because as gym members we should all be on terms of equality with one another. Furthermore, the gym is large and appears to have equal numbers of black and white members present. There seem to be more men than women, but it doesn’t feel male dominated. There are all age ranges present. There are relative few Asians or people who appear to be Hispanic, but that is unsurprising given the demographics of Baltimore. Of course, this is still anecdotal evidence even if it’s multiple anecdotes. However, over several visits I couldn’t help notice that black men apologized in the same situations in which I did whereas not a single white man apologized during the same period. I did not have any incidents with either black women or white women but Asian women did apologize to me.
According to an article about the video in FastCompany, “Apologizing unnecessarily puts women in a subservient position and makes people lose respect for them.”
I began to see the question in a new light. Instead of wondering, “Why are women always apologizing,” I started to wonder, “Why don’t white men ever apologize?” However, I didn’t feel respect for those men who didn’t apologize. If I felt anything, it was mild irritation. Meanwhile, the men with whom I had done the sorry-sorry tango left me with mild positive feelings towards them. One of them said “Hello” and smiled every time we encountered each other in the gym after that.
Last year, there was an article on Slate that questioned the conventional wisdom about this. Amanda Hess notes that it is not an established fact that women apologize more frequently than men. She also goes on to say that apologizing is not inherently bad.
And treating others with empathy doesn’t equal devaluing ourselves. Yoko Hosoi, a professor at Tokyo University, describes the “apology-forgiveness culture” among men and women in Japan as “an ingrained cultural heritage, which serves to make a harmonious, peace-oriented society”—not to lay blame or establish hierarchies. Saying “I’m sorry” is a cultural thing. Often, it’s a positive one. And yet when we recognize a trend in the culture of women, our impulse is to say, “Women do X. Men do Y. Therefore, women should stop doing X.” Why don’t we instead think: Perhaps men could be a little bit more like women.
My casual observation would indicate that any further studies would have to take characteristics other than gender into account. Furthermore, the assumption that it’s inherently bad needs to be questioned.
Since moving to New York City, I have had several white men apologize for getting in my way on the sidewalk. So, it seems even one more factor would have to be taken into account.