Policing Women’s Language.

In 2016, I composed a letter of resignation from my post stating I needed mental reprieve and rest. What went unsaid was the organization’s inherent toxicity, lack of regard for personal space, and increasing value differences were among the reasons I had decided to quit. However, as demanded by professional protocol, I apologized for leaving the organization at a critical point and for the suddenness of the decision. In truth, I did not want to apologize.


Academically, apologies have been credited with “almost miraculous qualities”, and have been called “powerful”. In conflict resolution and relationship well-being, apologies have been attributed to “increase victim forgiveness, reduce anger and aggression toward the transgressor, improve evaluations of the transgressor, and validate the perceptions of the victim”. Research as early as 1978 shows that apologies are acts of politeness, which help, at least theoretically, to neutralize the shared space between the apologizer and the apology recipient. Karina Schumann writes, “It is thus not surprising that women, who are stereotypically considered to be more polite and relationally concerned than men, are also commonly believed to be more apologetic.”

Schumann presented her doctoral thesis on “When and Why Women Apologize More than Men” in 2011, a research which when it became public had women’s long-known apprehensions and doubt, “Do I apologize often?” validated. But unlike earlier studies, which only upheld old stereotypes through anecdotes or without objective evidence, Schumann’s research had six different studies, which helped one understand whether women apologize more than men, and if so, under what circumstances. The studies had the following results summarised as under:

  1. “Women apologized more frequently than men do.” But this is not to say that women and men value apology differently, or that one group is more willing to apologize than the other. Research showed that both women and men considered apologies to have positive outcomes and that they were willing to apologize wherever necessary.
  2. “Women may apologize more often than men do because they have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour.” The difference between women and men could be because of difference in judgement regarding the severity of the offence, and hence deserving of an apology. Schumann found, “Rather than men being more reluctant to apologize than women, it appears men apologize less frequently than women do because they tend to perceive offense as less severe and therefore less deserving of an apology.”
  3. “Women (but not men) endorse the stereotype that women apologize more often than men do.”
  4. In marriage and cohabiting relationships, “there are almost no gender differences in the number of offenses and apologies reported.”

A closer look at the results also indicate that social and cultural factors have a higher influence on women, where women are often socialized to distinguish between right and wrong behaviour, especially as performed by them. More importantly, policed morally, socially, bodily, it is not surprising that women internalize a particularly wide range of instances and behaviours that they need to be sorry about – the most common and often unnoticed apology that women make is for being a woman.


A recent development in the media is the increase in the scrutiny relegated to women’s speech, language, and communication. More popular among the business and career coaching experts, words and phrases like ‘Just’, ‘Sorry’, ‘I guess’, ‘Like’, ‘I mean’, ‘I’m no expert but’ and ‘So’ are considered “undermining words” and sometimes, even “useless”. Tami Reiss, who built the Just Not Sorry plug-in for Google Chrome promotes it by saying that qualifiers such as the above-mentioned, reduce women’s surety about what they are saying. The plug-in intends to “kick the habit by making it obvious when these qualifiers are holding us [women] back.”

The linguist Deborah Tannen accurately points to the double bind that women currently exist within, “When women talk in ways that are common among women, and are seen as ineffective or underestimated, they’re told it’s their fault for talking that way. But if they talk in ways that are associated with authority, and are seen as too aggressive, then that, too, is their fault when people react negatively.” This policing of women’s language and communication, wherein they are told to tuck-in their ‘just-s’ and ‘like-s’, not engage in upspeak (turning declarative sentences into questions), and to reduce their vocal fry (a way of speaking in which the voice is very low-pitched and has a characteristic rough or creaking sound), is one of the many sexist cultural enforcements women have to endure. Tannen adds, both the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’ way of speaking do not guarantee the authority that women desire in any relationship (personal, professional or social).

Linguists contend that language, apart from its role in making an argument, or relaying information, also helps in building relationships. To say that women are undermining themselves by use of certain qualifiers is to say that women are undermining themselves by being themselves. That the glass ceiling and the pay gap exists today even when women have been trying to do everything propounded (from changing their language to self-presentation) to get ahead is enough to understand that the ‘problem’ exists beyond women.

Privilege works in interesting ways. Even though Schumann’s research showed that both women and men considered apologies to have positive outcomes and that they were willing to apologize wherever necessary, it was also found that “men were less likely to believe they could be wrong.”

Does this mean that difference in power, socio-cultural influences, personality, and status, influence some individuals and groups to believe they are more likely to be wrong, and hence more apologetic? Schumann mentions in her research work done by Geert Hofstede and by Markus H R & Kitayama S stating this could be true– “Cross-cultural research provides some support for the influence of interdependence on judgments of offense severity and apology likelihood. Individuals living in interdependent, collectivistic cultures—cultures that emphasize the preservation of relationship harmony and the pursuit of group interests tend to prefer dispute minimizing tactics such as negotiation, bargaining, and apologies, to a greater extent than individuals from individualistic cultures.” The same was true for couples in romantic relationships, where women and men were sensitive to the “preservation of relationship harmony”.

Perhaps, this is the way forward. Maybe instead of asking women to be “less sensitive” and asking men to be “more sensitive”, if we diffused the unequal distribution of power and replaced it with sensitivity and interdependence, creating smaller communities (homes, institutions, workplaces, public spaces) where interdependence is celebrated and acts as a “potential remedy for the gender difference in severity thresholds.” Perhaps then, apology can be removed of its unnecessary connotations.


  1. Can We Just, Like, Get Over the Way Women Talk?, Ann Friedman | The Cut, July 2015 (https://www.thecut.com/2015/07/can-we-just-like-get-over-the-way-women-talk.html)
  2. Contrite Makes Right, Deborah Tannen | 1999, p.67-70 (https://static1.squarespace.com/contrite+makes+right.pdf)
  3. Crap Apps and Female Email, Debbie Cameron | Language: A Feminist Guide. December 2015 (https://debuk.wordpress.com/2015/12/30/crap-apps-and-female-email/)
  4. Culture and the Self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation, Markus H R & Kitayama S | Psychological Review, 1991 (http://www.umich.edu/~psychol/381/markus.pdf)
  5. Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation, Nicholas Tavuchis | 1991 (http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=3130)
  6. National cultures revisited, Geert Hofstede | Behaviour Science Research, 1983 (http://geerthofstede.com/geert-hofstede-biography/publications/)
  7. Sorry to ask but… do women apologize more than men?, Kelly Wallace | CNN, June 2014 (http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/26/living/women-apologize-sorry-pantene-parents/index.html)
  8. Study Reveals Why Women Apologize So Much, Rachael Rettner | Live Science, September 2010 (https://www.livescience.com/8698-study-reveals-women-apologize.html)
  9. Telling Women to Apologize Less Isn’t About Empowerment. It’s About Shame, Jessican Grose | The Washington Post, January 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/01/04/sorry-language-shamers-but-women-just-dont-need-your-new-email-policing-app/?utm_term=.26a9416e0f77)
  10. When and Why Women Apologize More than Men, Karina Schumann | UWSpace: Waterloo’s Institutional Repository, 2011 (https://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/bitstream/handle/10012/5998/Schumann_Karina.pdf)
  11. When Do You Owe an Apology? Depends on Gender | Association for Psychological Science, March 2011 (https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/obsonline/when-do-you-owe-an-apology-depends-on-gender.html#.WWyIc4SGPIU)
  12. Why Women Apologize and Should Stop, Sloane Crosley | The New York Times, June 2015 (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/23/opinion/when-an-apology-is-anything-but.html)
  13. Women Don’t Need to Apologize Less—Men Need to Learn How to Apologize, Sady Doyle | Elle, April 2017 (http://www.elle.com/culture/career-politics/news/a44528/why-men-are-so-bad-at-apologizing/)

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