Sorry, but women should not be sorry about saying sorry

A new app wants to stop women from sounding weak in emails — but there's plenty to be said for the soft sell.
Photo, iStock. Photo, iStock.

If you interrupt me, I’m the one likely to apologize. In my texts, I overuse exclamation marks to express affection and enthusiasm. I end emails — even some of my professional ones — with “xo” and I routinely couch my opinions in person and in print with “I think” or “I feel.”

Apparently, these sorts of habits are ruining my authority and softening my message. To stop it, at least in my emails, I can now use Just Not Sorry, a new Chrome Plug-In developed by Cyrus Innovation to scour my Gmail for minimizing word and phrases — or “shrinkers” — like “I’m no expert” and “just” (as in “I’m just confirming our meeting…”) and, worst of all, “sorry” (as in “Sorry to bother you…”).

Tami Reiss, one of the plug-in’s developers, explained that this is a particularly female problem: Women tend to avoid strong and direct language, and that is holding them back in their careers. With Just Not Sorry, verboten words are underlined and highlighted, a sort of spellcheck for hedging.

To be blunt — yes, I can be blunt, despite my having a uterus — the claim that women are more likely than men to talk and write like this appears to be total bunk. Linguist Debbie Cameron’s blog post on Just Not Sorry was anything but shrinking. “Apart from being based on naïve and simplistic ideas about how language works,” she writes, “the other big problem with the ‘women, stop undermining yourselves’ approach is that it presupposes a deficit model of women’s language-use.”


In fact, the only proof Reiss provides to show that women are serial sorry-ers are two fictional examples. The first is an Amy Schumer sketch in which a panel of high achieving female experts fall all over themselves apologizing, and the second is a comic riff in a newspaper column imagining how women might haplessly utter famous quotes in a meeting. (“I have a dream,” then, becomes “I had sort of an idea or vision about maybe the future?”)

And a closer look reveals something more complex: In the Schumer sketch, the comedian pokes fun at how dismissive the stupid male audience members are of the far superior women on stage. The column is inspired by the actor Jennifer Lawrence, who had written about speaking up for herself during a business meeting and being accused of being hostile and difficult.

In other words, the examples demonstrate the opposite of what Just Not Sorry hopes to address. The problem is not what women say or how they say it. The problem is the assumption that women’s voices and women’s writing don’t sound serious enough. Telling women that they need to fix some aspect of themselves — their voice, their tone, their email phrasing — in order to succeed shifts the blame to us. If we fail, it’s not because of inequality and sexism, it’s because we didn’t act enough like men. (Don’t forget that acting like a man can backfire: Several studies have found that women who “leaned in” and asked for higher salaries were penalized for it, while men who did the same were not.)

What’s overlooked by the language police is that it’s often those outside the power structure who are most creative, nimble and flexible in their language use. Code switching, for example, is a term used for someone capable of flipping easily between languages and dialects — consider President Barack Obama’s deft shifts between slang and lawyer speak — and it’s a significant skill in an increasingly multicultural world, affording the speaker the ability to connect with many different kinds of people. And if women are more deferential and polite in how they use language, it may not be because they lack gravitas. An alternate interpretation is that they are being strategic, knowing when and how to play nice and turn on the charm. As for saying sorry all the time, there is actual research and evidence that the superfluous apology (saying “I’m so sorry you had a bad commute”) makes you appear more empathetic and trustworthy.


For what it’s worth, the social scientists behind that report appear to have been inspired in part by an old speech by President Bill Clinton in which he apologized to the crowd for the lousy weather. Perhaps that’s why they used a man in their study, having him go up to strangers and apologize for the rain before asking to borrow their phone. Still worked, though: Strangers were five times more likely to fork over the phone when the guy said sorry over nothing at all. Perhaps we should be encouraging men to sound more like women instead.



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