Sorry about this but we officially can't stop apologising. Robyn D’Arcy analyses why this has far-reaching consequences in all spheres of our lives. Sorry not sorry...
Over the years, male singers have released songs where they apologise almost twice as much as women singers. This is one area, however, where life doesn’t imitate art; sorry really does seem to be ‘the hardest word’ for men in comparison to women. Because it’s widely accepted that women say sorry far more than men. There’s certainly been a lot of talk over the past few years about how women should stop saying sorry so much whether IRL, online, or in the workplace, to take their power back.
Stop saying sorry
I’m certainly guilty of it. I probably use ‘sorry’ more than any other word on email. Since the start of 2021, I have sent 43 emails to my boss apologising for being too busy to reply instantaneously. But is it really such a problem? At my work, Wunderman Thompson, we’ve been doing deep-dive research across social media, the press and TV in the UK to see if women still say sorry more than men, why this is and what should be done about it.
We’ve been looking at hundreds of thousands of conversations and comments across Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, forums and blogs from January 2019 to February 2021, as well as newspapers and popular 2020 TV shows - and found that yes, people who identify as women still say sorry more than men. It seems a lot of the pressure women feel to say sorry comes from the media.
The analysis found 69% of all social posts containing the words ‘I’m sorry’ were from women. When we looked at characters apologising on TV, we found similar - and worse - percentages weighted towards women - 61% in The Queen’s Gambit, 73% in the latest season of The Crown, and 85% in I Hate Suzie. On social media, we found posts calling on women to apologise were filled with three times more disgust and anger than posts demanding the same from men - and six times more hatred.
‘Disgraceful,’ ‘disgusting,’ ‘ashamed,’ ‘unacceptable’ and ‘stupid woman’ were amongst the top phrases used.
In the press, there’s been almost double the volume of content criticising women than criticising men since 2013. Men, particularly footballers and politicians, are criticised most frequently for career moves, tactics and their impact on business and the wider world. But female celebrities face the highest volume of criticism - Meghan Markle, Katie Price, Stacey Solomon and the Kardashians are ‘slammed,’ 'shamed’ and called on to apologise the most, mostly for choices in parenthood or appearance.
Saying sorry and imposter syndrome
Yet the natural tendency for women to say ‘sorry’ - and the expectation for them to do so – goes beyond just wanting to apologise. Research has revealed how ‘sorry’ eases awkwardness, fills silences and can be a way to start a conversation, particularly for women at work.
There’s also a clear association between over-apologising and imposter syndrome. Our analysis found that 67% of those describing imposter syndrome symptoms were women - and 74% of those posting about feeling as if they are an ‘inconvenience’ or a ‘burden’ were women too.
‘Sorry’ can help women enter discussions and establish their presence and right to speak - and it helps words spoken afterwards from appearing too assertive. And in this context, ‘sorry’ is not for an act; rather for who women are, or how we could be perceived. Similarly, as with a lot of women, I think my overuse of ‘sorry’ in work emails derives from an innate sense of guilt and constant need to be seen as polite.
Calling women out to stop saying sorry can be problematic
But telling women to stop saying sorry has consequences. ‘Sorry’ is a form of social currency and there’s a potential cost for its underuse, as well as its overuse. Ditching the word and acting ‘more assertively’, can lead women to be perceived as less ‘warm’, feel more awkward, less empowered - and less themselves. Women apologising isn’t what’s keeping sexism alive; it’s the age-old sexist belief that women are less capable, and therefore that the male standard should be the goal.
The more we associate the word ‘sorry’ with women’s speech, the more use of the word is considered ‘wrong,’ and the more women who say it are disadvantaged. Telling women to stop saying sorry and adapt is basically expecting them to offset a sexist imbalance. It puts the onus on them.
However, women, particularly Black women and queer women, continue to lead a movement around agency, autonomy and living on one’s own terms – both on and offline. TikTok videos tagged #sorrynotsorry have attracted 3.4b views. Songs where women refuse to apologise for who they are or what they do have risen by 25% since the noughties. Online content about being unapologetic and authentic has increased by 5,000%.
But if ‘sorry’ fits naturally into some women’s speech patterns, calling them out for it is not the answer. Recognising how and why ‘sorry’ is used and actually listening to women is more likely to lessen the word’s use. Basically, us women shouldn’t feel bad about using the word ‘sorry’ and just do what works best for us. Thankfully in the 2020s, we’re becoming more unapologetically ourselves - and it’s time for wider culture to encourage that. Should we stop saying sorry? I think women shouldn’t feel sorry for saying sorry anymore.
* Robyn D'Arcy is a Senior Analyst at Wunderman Thompson specialising in data analytics and storytelling
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