Do you always find yourself apologizing? Even when some would say you’ve done little or nothing to apologize for?
Studies suggest that if you answered “yes,” you’re probably female. That may be a stereotype, but it’s apparently one grounded in reality. Women do indeed apologize more often than men.
But wait. It goes deeper. A 2010 study published in Psychological Science 1) suggests this pattern has nothing to do with egos (i.e., men refuse to apologize because it makes them look like losers; women apologize because they’re not assertive). Both women and men apologize when they feel an apology is warranted. It’s just that men seem to have a higher threshold of what constitutes offensive behavior.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
Research conducted by Carol Kinsey Goman 2) about communication in the workplace noted a consistent strength in female communication: the ability to read body language and pick up nonverbal cues. Males, she found, are less sensitive to audience reactions. Thus, it may be that women perceive more offenses because they are more focused on the experiences of other people. They are also more likely to use tentative speech forms—qualifiers, hedges, and fillers—when speaking (e.g, “kind of” or “sorry to bother you”) because they are more sensitive to the possible effect of their words.
Males, on the other hand, may have a higher threshold for social pain. They are less likely to apologize because they are less likely to perceive that an offense has been committed. When they use a tentative form it is more likely meant to take the edge off a direct statement (“Perhaps if you turn to page 2 of your text you will see what I mean”).
The point of this is not to admonish either women or men to change their ways—just to be aware of this key difference in communication. When women apologize they are not necessarily being self-effacing, just displaying the empathy they may feel is warranted. When men seem overly blunt and direct it’s not necessarily that they’re trying to be overbearing, just that they see no reason to be less than direct and to-the-point.
As you prepare to address any audience, it’s worthwhile to learn whether it will be exclusively male, exclusively female, or some proportion of the two. That can have a bearing on how you present your information. It can also have a bearing on how well you understand your next workplace interaction with a member of another gender.
1) Schumann, K., & Ross, M. (2010). Why Women Apologize More Than Men: Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive Behavior. Psychological Science, 21(11).
2) Goman, Carol Kinsey (2016). Is your Communication Style Dictated by Your Gender? Forbes online: