Addressing Apology Culture

Guy sits next to you on the train, spreads his legs as far apart as you think could be humanly possible, and you’re suddenly squashed up against a glass panel or door with little room to breathe. And who said sorry? Probably you.
Publish date:
July 15, 2014
The Style Con, advertisement, culture, apology

You know the scene: a guy sits next to you on the train, spreads his legs as far apart as you think could be humanly possible, then the stretching arms make an appearance, and you’re suddenly squashed up against a glass panel or door with little room to breathe. And who said sorry? Probably you.

Pantene’s message for women in their new advert is simple: stop saying sorry unnecessarily. We’re socially conditioned to apologise for everything from our periods to taking up space on the tube at rush hour.

Alongside Always’ new ‘Like A Girl’ advert, which argues that the phrase acting ‘like a girl’ shouldn’t be an insult, Pantene also seems to be campaigning for a change in cultural norms. The women in the ad are shown apologising in a range of situations: in a meeting when asking a question; in a waiting room when a man next to them brushes their arm, and when passing their child to their husband. The scenarios are slightly exaggerated, but the message is important nonetheless. Okay, while we might not actually consecutively apologise one by one in a meeting when someone joins the table and we make room for them, it does make us acutely aware of how women are taught to interact and that it deserves attention.

In one scenario a woman interrupts a meeting to ask: ‘Sorry, can I ask a stupid question?’ This is significant in a culture which normalises male dominance both in the workplace and in social situations. Women are used to being interrupted by men and feel compelled to apologise when they themselves are the ones interrupting. And this happens everywhere from the office to the classroom: a Harvard study found that female students are more likely to be interrupted than males in seminar situations – and in male-dominated classes (a male teacher and predominantly male students), males spoke two and a half times longer than their female peers.

So what happens when women do get equal talking time and aren’t interrupted? A study by Dale Spender reported that the perception was that the girls in the classroom were receiving more than their fair share of contribution time. Spender explains this by commenting that ‘the talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.’ The expectation, then, is that women are (or should be) silent and when they are not, they are taught to apologise.

Although women reportedly apologise more frequently than men, scientists attribute this tendency to the fact that men have a higher threshold for what they deem offensive behaviour.Why? The explanation for this seems relatively simple: we live in a society which conditions women to be kinder, quieter and more polite, fuelling this apology culture when we don’t fit nicely into these categories. Pantene highlights this with painful accuracy: women apologise more often simply because we’re taught to apologise for entering situations in the same manner as men: with confidence and assertiveness. As Meghan Murphy describes, “We smile when we’re harassed on the street or hit on by jerks. We laugh at sexist jokes. We learn that when we have strong opinions, we’ll be called bitches and that if we get angry, we’ll be called hysterical. When we say what we want, we’re called pushy or aggressive.” So we learn to apologise for normal emotional reactions, before stating our opinions – and even after things that weren’t our fault.

I can’t begin to count the number of times I say sorry on a regular basis – and whether or not this is a product of my instinctively polite nature or that I feel compelled to apologise, I shall never know. And yes, Pantene’s argument isn’t exactly a new one, but it is relevant. It’s no surprise that women are taught to apologise more frequently than men: apology culture fuels male entitlement. If we feel compelled to say sorry for being assertive, this allows more space for male assertiveness. If we’re sorry for taking up space in conversation by stating our opinions, this conveniently allows more space for male opinion. How many times have you heard the words ‘sorry for the rant’ or ‘rant over’ after a female friend has been speaking about something important to her?

Pantene’s message is slightly over-emphasised, but the overriding message still stands: we need to stop apologizing for things we don’t need to be sorry for – and our culture should stop teaching us that we have so many faults.

Reprinted with permission from TheStyleCon. Want More?

Verbal Blackface With The "Realest" Girl Around

The Spice Girls' Wannabe: A Retrospective

My Very Serious Internal Struggle With Birkenstocks