I’m learning to say sorry less, but why don’t some men say it more?

I’m learning to say sorry less, but why don’t some men say it more?

January 5, 2022

“You need to say sorry less.”

I’ve been told this at every job I’ve ever worked, by every partner I’ve ever had and by all my friends and family.

“Clearly some of us need to learn to say sorry more – and better.”Credit:iStock

I do say sorry a lot. Recently after a hot yoga class, one of the assistants said I didn’t need to tell her I was sorry for still being in the room – she was only opening a door so the space could cool down. I also apologised the other day for taking notes during a Zoom meeting, and told my dentist I was sorry for arriving for my appointment five minutes early.

I’m working on saying sorry less – or at least only when it’s necessary. But when does sorry really mean sorry? And why don’t other men say sorry more?

Pope Francis is an advocate for apologising. In a letter released on December 26, he said “sorry” was among the three most important words for a happy marriage, along with “please” and “thanks.”

Pope Francis wants couples to use the word “sorry” more.Credit:AP

It’s a common belief that men usually don’t say sorry as often as women. According to a study from Canada’s University of Waterloo, men typically apologise less overall, and believe they cause offence less often.

Professor Brock Bastian, from the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne, says there’s discomfort when apologising, and vulnerability.

“Men tend to not be as good at being vulnerable as women,” he says.

Could that be why many men don’t say sorry as often? University of Queensland clinical psychology senior lecturer Dr James Kirby says there might be several reasons.

“Saying sorry can be perceived as a weakness, which would chip away at their masculine status,” he says.

“Also, men high in ‘traditional masculinity’ value not showing emotions, and when saying sorry we often show sadness, regret, remorse.

“Others can avoid saying sorry because they don’t want to be perceived as making a mistake or having done something wrong. In these instances, some people can see themselves as a ‘bad person’ if they have to say sorry.”

Part of this could be down to the history of the word “sorry.” It comes from the Old English word “sarig,” meaning “distressed, grieved, full of sorrow” – which itself comes from the Proto-Germanic “sairiga-,” meaning “painful.”

Emeritus professor Roland Sussex, from the University of Queensland’s School of Languages and Cultures, explains that in other languages, such as Russian, there can be a direct link between sorry and guilt. But even in the English language, there can be a difference in how sorry is interpreted.

In Canada, for example, sorry doesn’t necessarily mean someone is guilty. The Apology Act even states that just because someone says they’re sorry doesn’t mean they’re legally guilty.

Of course, some people say sorry far more than others. Writing for Psychology Today, Dr Amanda Rose – a US professor at the University of Missouri – explains upbringing plays a role. According to Rose, women are usually raised to say sorry to maintain relationships and show sympathy for another person – in other words, to show care. Men, on the other hand, are typically taught to only apologise when they’ve done something wrong.

Could something else be going on psychologically for those of us who say sorry a lot? Says Dr Kirby: “Often that can be just a personality difference, just a super conscientious person or maybe family upbringing. Others can say sorry heaps to not appear threatening to others. Some people who are very anxious and insecure can say sorry a lot.”

Professor Bastian says “over-apologising” can be because of societal expectations or a sign of a lack of confidence. But the more you use the word, the less impact it may have.

There are other risks. John Hall, author of Top of Mind, says saying sorry too much and for things we have little control over can make some people think less of us. In The Power of an Apology, author Beverly Engel warns excessively apologising can be interpreted as an invitation to treat us poorly.

Still, Professor Bastian stresses that saying sorry a lot isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Research shows it’s a sign of inner strength, intelligence, empathy – and is a desirable leadership trait.

“It’s actually not a very psychologically or reputationally expensive thing to apologise, but people think it is,” Bastian says.

Not saying sorry can even impede our happiness, Bastian says. He adds that apologising can help remove feelings of guilt or shame we might otherwise bottle up inside.

Dr Kirby agrees. “Saying sorry can be very therapeutic. But people can be very afraid of saying sorry.”

So is there a “right” way to say sorry? As Dr Harriet Lerner – author of Why Won’t You Apologize: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts – told NPR, a good apology needs to be sincere. It’s also important to be vulnerable, she says, and listen to the other person.

With stories about people not apologising for bad behaviour in the news regularly, clearly some of us need to learn to say sorry more – and better.

As for myself, I’ve been trying to only apologise when it’s really important – for things I’ve actually done or said versus things I have no control over – and really mean it when I say it. That way, my apologies might be interpreted as more sincere and go further in mending relationships.

But I’d also like to think I try to put myself in other people’s shoes to better empathise with them – and take responsibility for my actions. I’m not sorry for that.

Ben Mack is a writer from North Plains, Oregon, living in Wellington, New Zealand.

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