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'Sorry' May Not Be the Hardest Word


Sorry for interrupting the morning ritual, but if you could just take a minute to read this. . . . Oh. You're late and your coffee is cold? Jeez, sorry about the coffee, I hate when that happens. . . . I don't want to make you late, forgive me, it's just that. . . .

"Stop apologizing!" you want to yell.

Many people--especially women--hear such protests when they apologize for the weather, bad food or problems with the air conditioning. But sometimes what comes across as self-belittling is actually "ritual apology"--a kind of conversational grease for the wheels of communication.

"I'm sorry" doesn't necessarily mean--in the literal sense--"I goofed." It often serves as a verbal nod of acknowledgment that something regrettable has occurred without assigning blame, or it is used as a mutual face-saving device.

"There are two kinds of ritual apology," says Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen, who wrote about ritual apology in her "Talking From 9 to 5" (Avon Books, 1994). "One is 'I am sorry that happened to you' recognition of the other person's experience. The other one is where you actually do apologize and it could or could not be literal, but it is one step in a two-step ritual. . . . I take one part of the blame and you take the other part and we restore the balance of power."

Used to demonstrate understanding and compassion, the ritual apology is standard at funerals ("I am so sorry about Mary's death") or to express regret over an illness.

Ritual apologies--like other conversational rituals--work best when both parties assume the same premise about its purpose, Tannen says. When used to restore balance, the ritual apology depends on the benevolence of others not to take the self-abnegation seriously. When a conversational partner takes a ritual apology literally, it leaves the person uttering "I'm sorry" in "a one-down position," Tannen says.

"Say your husband was supposed to pick you up on a certain corner and he wasn't there," she suggests. "He says you didn't make it clear where he was to go. You say, 'I'm sorry I wasn't clear,' even though you are 100% sure you were clear. If he says, 'I'm sorry I wasn't there,' then blame has been shared. But if he says, 'Yeah, you weren't clear,' you would be mad. There are many instances where men do this--and women do it as well."

But women, generally, are more comfortable saying, "I will take part of the blame and you take part of the blame," Tannen adds.


Studies conducted on Americans and New Zealanders found that women are generally more likely to apologize than men. Women apologize more to other women and much less to men, according to the New Zealand study, while men apologized more to women and rarely to other men. Women are also more likely to apologize to a subordinate, while men are more likely to apologize to a boss.

Such gender differences are outgrowths of the differing social organization of boys and girls, according to research. Boys and men tend to organize themselves based on negotiation and status; girls and women, based on connection and relationships. Men tend to see apologizing as weakness, an admission of failure and loss of status. But, of course, both sexes are concerned with status.

"Both sexes are always trying to negotiate relative status and we have to juggle how close and distant we are and who is up and who is down," Tannen says. "If you don't recognize these conversational rituals, they tend to be taken literally. Men will banter with each other in ritual opposition--playing devil's advocate to test each other's ideas--and women will take it literally, feeling attacked. Women will apologize and men will take it literally--thinking it shows a lack of confidence and is a reflection of her internal psychological state."


Ritual apologies can also backfire when one party fires them off more frequently than others in a group. Tannen relates the story of a corporate executive who was recognized among her peers and her immediate boss as one of the most competent in her field. Indeed, they voted her best among them. But when her boss' boss ranked employees, the executive plummeted to the bottom.

"She issued a ritual apology seven times in one meeting," Tannen said. "It was not that she was using it that was so bad, but she was the only one who was doing it. The observation of the boss' boss was based on a much more limited view of this woman than that of her peers. He told me she was weak. On the other hand, if everyone is issuing ritual apologies, it does not have a negative effect."

With such potential for misunderstanding and career costs, should ritual apology be banned from conversation? That depends on who you are talking to, what the context is and your role in the conversation, Tannen says. Within marriages, such apologies can prevent standoffs and ease tension. Among women, a gal pal who never apologizes will be more disliked than a man who never apologizes. And in the workplace, a good rule might be, never have a higher "I'm sorry" quotient than those around you.

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