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Dense Like Nobody's Watching 

I read your column about why women apologize more than men, and the science makes sense. What you didn't address is why men don't admit they're wrong or apologize. So while women operate according to the survival instincts you described, men oafishly bumble through life without a clue they screwed up and owe someone an apology. They don't even know how to apologize in the first place! Explain that, science lady!

- Annoyed

You've got loads of company in believing women default to "mea culpa" while men are all "mea do no wronga."

And sure, as you note, I did show that women apologizemore often) than men — both when they realize they've wronged somebody and in situations where an apology is beyond ridiculous: "I'm sorry, but could you pass the salt?" Women likewise use more hinty, tentative language ("I hate to bother you") and "whimperatives," linguist Jerrold Sadock's term for direct orders — like "Stop yelling at me!" — meeked-up into questions: "Would you mind not yelling at me?" (Answer — at 90 decibels: "WELL, YEAH, I WOULD!")

Women don't hide what they're saying behind a bunch of verbal bramble because they're weak. Female indirectness seems to have evolved to help ancestral mamas (and mamas-to-be) avert conflict and avoid retaliation and physical harm. A beatdown could easily break their reproductive "machinery" or jeopardize their ability to feed and care for babies they'd had — making it "goodbye forever!" for their genes.

Because, right now in 2022, our minds are powered by antique, ancestral-era psychology, we women are still "programmed" to be mealymouths — despite how, these days, we can neatly take out any club-wielding brute with a well-aimed Hello Kitty-embossed Smith & Wesson.

However, the fact that men apologize less frequently doesn't mean they are less willingto apologize when they've wronged somebody. As social psychologist Karina Schumann put it in her research on sex differences in "apology behavior": "Despite wide acceptance of the stereotype that women apologize more readily than men" ("more readily" being the important nuance), "there is little ... evidence to support this bias."

Schumann had male and female undergrads keep a diary for 12 days and log each time they apologized to someone — as well as each time they or someone else did something they felt called for an apology. There were four categories of offenses: failed obligations (like showing up late), inconveniences (calling a wrong number), physical offenses (denting a borrowed car), and "relational" offenses (hurtful interpersonal behavior like lying, cheating, or putting the toilet paper roll on "backward").

Schumann did find that the women apologized more than the men. But don't gloat just yet!

Women also reported doing more things they felt called for an apology. So, you could say, "Awww...see, they care more about how their behavior affects others!" However, the women also found more of others' behaviors objectionable and apology-worthy.

Men, on the other hand, showed more of a "whatever, dude" attitude about much of the stuff women found offensive. This attitude was reflected in research by psychologist Joyce Benenson on men's and women's issues with their college roommates. The women found their roommates much more obnoxious than the men found theirs: messier and louder, as well as smellier and more disgusting ("which is hard to believe," writes Benenson, "as usually men care less than women about ... hygiene").

Schumann's results suggest that "women offer more apologies than men do" (and are more likely to see an apology as necessary) "because women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior." This brings us to Schumann's stereotype-debunking finding: "Men were no less willing than women were to apologize for their behavior once they categorized it as offensive." And guess what: "Their apologies were similarly effusive."

Male-female differences in perception can lead to ugly misunderstandings. "For example," Schumann notes, "If women perceive offenses that their male romantic partners do not notice, women might interpret an absence of an apology as evidence that their partners are indifferent to their well-being" (rather than the natural result of leaving a man to guess what he's done). "Similarly, men may regard their female partners as overly sensitive." However, the real issue seems to be that "men and women unwittingly disagree at an earlier stage in the process: identifying whether or not a transgression has even occurred."

Understanding this — what men and women don't understand about each other — the supposedly worst apology (bordering on criminal!) that a husband or boyfriend can give, "I'm sorry you feel hurt," isn't necessarily the atrocity it's made out to be. Look to a man's intentions. Is he generally a good-hearted guy who shows you he loves you and wants to make you happy? If so, maybe give him credit for doing his semi-clueless best. Ultimately, for a man, love means never knowing exactly why you're sorry.

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