Women Apologize More than Men. But Why?

Women find themselves apologizing more often than men, but not for the reason you think.

October 4, 2010

No hard feelings: women apologize more than men, according to new research.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Do you find yourself apologizing all the time? If you're a woman, you may, but if you're a man, you probably don’t. And there's a scientific, psychological explanation for why that is, suggests a new study published in the journal Psychological Science. "What we found was that there was definitely a higher frequency of apologizing among women," says the study's lead author Karina Schumann, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. But, she adds, "we found that men are just as willing to apologize. It's just that they have a higher threshold for what bothers them."

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THE DETAILS: Schumann separated her study into two parts. For the first part, she had 33 male and 33 female university students ranging in age from 18 to 44 keep a diary for 12 days. At the end of each day, the students were asked to document three instances in which they apologized to someone or did something they felt warranted an apology, and three instances in which someone apologized to them or did something to them that they felt warranted an apology. When all the individual situations were tallied, women reported apologizing 217 times, compared to men's 158, and women also reported receiving more apologies, 142, while men reported receiving just 111. Women also reported being the victim of a transgression more frequently than men, 242 times compared to 164.

In the second part of the study, Schumann wanted to determine why it is that men both apologize less and report being victims less frequently. So she presented 63 female and 57 male students with three scenarios in which the students committed various offenses, such as snapping at a friend or causing a friend to miss studying for an important midterm. The students were asked to rate how severe each offense was, and how likely they would be to apologize for the offense. In all cases, the women rated the offenses as more severe than the men did, and the women were more likely to say they would apologize than the men were.

WHAT IT MEANS: There is finally evidence that women apologize more than men do. But it's not that men are insensitive or that women are hypersensitive, Schumann says. "Neither gender is at fault. It's just a different level of sensitivity to things that happen," she says. "It tends to be that men think things are less offensive than women do, and that also carries over to when they're victims." And, she adds, men are willing to apologize when they feel a situation warrants an apology. She notes in her study that, although the actual number of apologies from men were lower, the percentage of times they apologized for things they felt warranted an apology was the same as for women.

What it all boils down to, she says, is effective communication. "If a woman doesn't receive an apology from a man, it's not that he doesn't care," she says. By the same token, "men should be open to the possibility that if a partner is communicating that they've been hurt, it's not that they're being overly sensitive. People just need to recognize that it could be a difference in perception, and they need to approach those differences in a more open and communicative way."

It's important to keep the lines of communication open when resolving any conflict, but when it comes to apologizing, here are a few tips:

• Make it sincere. There aren't any rules governing when you should apologize and when you shouldn't, says Schumann, the one exception being when you honestly feel you've wronged someone. "If you perceive that you've hurt someone, and you sincerely feel like you want to make them feel better, it's a good idea to apologize for it," she says. If you apologize because you think you have to, but don't think the situation warrants an apology, you'll come across as bitter and insincere, she says.

• Don't overdo it. "We don't want people to read our research and apologize for everything," says Schumann. After all, it could make your apologies seem insincere, and it could put you in an awkward position. "If you're constantly apologizing, people may see you as too polite or weak, that you're supplicating to another person," she says. "People need to go with what they feel comfortable with."

• Be open-minded. As Schumann's research shows, there are many cases when you don't apologize, or don't receive an apology, because it all has to do with perception. "Be open minded to the experience of the other person," she says. "Recognize that the person you're interacting with may not see the situation from the same point of view as you see it, or fully understand your experience." So if you don't think you've done anything wrong and someone tells you you've hurt them, just ask why. "In the end, it's more beneficial to simply confront the situation."