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Why Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

In 2010, Canadian researchers Karina Schumann and Michael Ross, published the results of their study, in the journal Psychological Science, that gender stereotypers everywhere jumped on. And when I say jumped, I mean they dived, head first, from around a thousand feet up, and made a splash that Niagara falls would have been proud of. It was everywhere. Women’s magazines around the globe were in a frenzy to reference the study that finally proved what they had been saying for years – women say sorry more than men. And that was that. Proof. Argument over. End of analysis. Back to our coffee break.

But in fact, what many of them missed, and what turned out to be a far more pertinent and far more accurate reflection of real life, was that men and women actually apologised exactly the same percentage of time when they thought they had done something that warranted saying sorry (81% to be precise).

The real point was that women not only thought they had done something warranting an apology more often, but when compared to their male counterparts, they also rated the very same action as far more offensive too.

When placed in the context of other research, this becomes an even more interesting story.

Linguist Deborah Tannen noted that women use the word sorry as a ‘tip of the verbal hat’, to acknowledge something regrettable has happened – expressing understanding and concern rather than an apology. In other words, when a woman says sorry, she does not necessarily mean it is her fault, but is empathising with the other person, rather than acknowledging her own personal blame. Men on the other hand associate the word with a ‘confession’ of guilt, wrong doing and punishment.

The plot thickens even further when we throw into the mix that neuroscientists have long noted disparities between the male and female brain: Men tend to have proportionally more white matter in their heads, indicating a thick web of connections that strengthen orgnisational skills and problem solving. Women have greater connectivity between the left side of the brain, where logic and facts are mostly processed, and the right side, in charge of non linear thought like creativity and perception – this greater flow of signals between left and right may explain why women are better at connecting language and emotions.

Another piece of the jigsaw can be added by the Journal of Neuroscience’s report, that higher levels of FOXP2, the so called “language protein”, is found in the brains of women, and that at a younger age than first thought, girls relationships’ with talking and words, may well be more intrinsically motivated than that of boys.

And then let’s throw in the female desire to promote harmonious relationships and her more natural ability to recognize emotional experiences – both of which have long been established as a necessary part of the maternal design and women’s evolutionary development as nurturers and relationship builders.

The picture we’re left with is far more complex than those magazine headlines suggest. That picture is now of a female brain that may naturally like to talk more, can connect words and emotion more easily, prioritises other people’s feelings more instinctively, is more naturally concerned with building relationships, sees the word sorry as a means of showing empathy, thinks it has done something ‘sorryful’ more often and has a higher threshold of events which it deems apologising would be appropriate for.

But so what? And who cares in the frenetic pace of a twenty-four hour office, where time waits for no man. And no woman either for that matter. Let them read their magazine articles and be done with it. All this science mumbo jumbo and squidgy ‘soft skills’ talk of empathy, makes no difference in the real world right?

Well no. That’s not quite right.

As it turns out, this stereotyped wafer thin understanding that each gender has about the other’s perceived obsession with the word sorry, or complete inability to use it, causes serious upset. And major misunderstanding. And therefore, rather large amounts of conflict. And none of that is good for your office. Your organisation’s productivity levels. Or your figures. Let’s not forget your figures ( and I mean of the currency nature, rather than your BMI).

The point is that both genders have something to learn from the other when it comes to their use of the word ‘sorry’. And if both genders understood the science behind it, understood the other gender’s starting position, realised the very different approaches and meaning that the other attached, then they could start to narrow the chasm that often seems to exist.

Men could perhaps realise that his female client is just looking for some understanding, some form of acknowledgment about how she must be feeling, rather than assuming she is after an admission of guilt, signed, sealed and delivered with personal blame and appropriate punishment. And he might realise that she is looking to build a good working relationship with him by doing this and that it will only help him to build that ever elusive rapport, rather than damaging his much prized and over rated ego.

And women could perhaps stop for a second before reacting and understand that her male colleague is not refusing to say sorry because he doesn’t care about her, or that he is a heartless Neanderthal, who has no desire to work with her on equal terms in a team. But instead she could start to realise that he may not know that there is anything to apologise for, or that he is concerned that she thinks it is all his fault, which he does not believe it is, or that in fact perhaps it is not something that he feels warrants a ‘sorry’ at all. And whisper it quietly, but he may even be right. On just this one occasion, of course (and especially when we consider Dr Tyler Okimoto’s research into the negative impact saying sorry can have on your self esteem!)

It all comes back to that old chestnut  – empathy. Men need to put themselves in a woman’s position and vice versa. But to do this, they need to understand the basic brain design, emotional connections and gender specific motivations, which may be kicking around that office canteen. We all need to be told that those sweeping gender generalisations are only telling a fraction of the story. A potentially very damaging fraction at that. And that underneath it all, there is some good old fashioned natural biological design going on. Which, after all, is the most basic commonality that all men and women share. Even in Canada.

Only with this knowledge can we hope to start using the word sorry more often, less frequently, but always together.