Standing on the subway as I headed home after a sleepover, my knees buckled from lack of sleep. Spotting a seat, I felt a wave of relief that soon turned to discomfort after I noticed that in the adjoining seat sat a man with his legs spread wide. I sighed, as I knew from experience that I would need to position myself in my seat with my knees locked or thighs crossed to allow myself enough room.
As I sat down the subway jolted forward and my knee knocked my neighbor’s thigh, which took up a good inch or two of my seat. I quickly apologized, and the man uttered, “It’s OK.”
No sooner had my apology left my mouth that I felt upset for making it. I had only bumped the man because part of his body had taken over my seat. I didn’t feel “sorry,” but rather, angry. So why had it been my automatic response to apologize? I thought about my friends – teen boys and girls – and how it seemed as though the girls apologized more readily than the guys. Was there any truth to this? I decided to get to the bottom of things.
Karina Schumann, a Ph.D. student at the University of Waterloo for Social Psychology, conducted a series of six studies to see if there is any difference in how often men and women apologize, and why. The results of the first study demonstrated that women did indeed appear to apologize more than men. 33 university students were asked to keep online diaries to record when and why they apologized over the course of 12 days. The diaries showed that women appeared to apologize more than men, and that they reported committing more offensive acts than the men did in their diaries. This led Schumann and her fellow researchers to wonder if men were given less disapproval for minor offenses than women.
Of course, 33 participants barely makes a study. In one of Schumann’s subsequent studies, she and her peers took 120 university students and asked them to rate the seriousness of particular offenses such as waking up a fellow student late at night with the understanding that the student had a big interview the next day and needed his or her sleep.
In Schumann’s final study, in which she asked romantic couples to keep daily diary entries of offenses, the number of them committed was nearly the same. They had, however, a different judgment of the severity of the offenses. Schumann’s conclusion was that men aren’t any less willing to apologize than women, it’s that they don’t often recognize that they’re doing anything wrong.
Thinking back about the man on the subway who sat with his legs wide open, I once again felt angry, but for different reasons. It wasn’t enough that I had apologized for not doing anything wrong. Why hadn’t the man recognized what was so obvious to me, namely that taking up more than one seat was rude and that not allowing me with more space to sit in my chair made me feel uncomfortable?
My Mom always taught me to say, “I’m sorry.” It was expected of me, and I felt it was the polite thing to do. But as I’ve grown older, saying sorry has become so habitual that I apologize when I ask teachers questions (“sorry, but may I ask…”), when I need to get up to use the bathroom (“I’m sorry, but I just need to use the bathroom…”), grab a bite to eat (“sorry, but I’m going to run out to get a slice of pizza…), and a litany of other situations that I can’t help and that certainly aren’t things I ought to ever feel apologetic about. You know, like saying “sorry” to some dude on the subway who won’t move his thighs from my seat.
I think the problem of apologizing is much bigger for girls than just saying sorry for small things. Recently I was visiting a friend’s house with my mom. My friend’s brother – a cute little kid – hit me. He was instructed to “say sorry,” but he not only refused, but hit me again a few minutes later. As the boy ran off, laughing, my friend’s mom looked at me, smiled, and apologized for her son. “Oh, boys,” she said.
This wasn’t the first time this sort of thing had happened. It happens, in fact, nearly every time I either visit a friend who has a brother, or see one of my mom’s adult friends who has sons.
My girl friends, however, aren’t let off the hook so easily. A couple of weeks ago I was at dinner with adult friends. Their little girl hit me, and what followed was that her parents not only commanded her to apologize, but wouldn’t let it go until the words slipped from her lips: “I’m sorry.”
What does it do to our society when parents have double standards for their daughters and sons? When boys are taught not only that they don’t have to apologize for poor behavior, but when it’s shrugged off? When girls are forced to bear the weight of offenses? I don’t have all of the answers, but I do read the news, and see the stories about women who are beaten, raped, silenced, and forced to make less money than men. I think that many of the bad things that happen to women start way before the actual event: they start when the women are young girls. They start when they are forced to take ownership of their bad behavior when their young brothers and male friends are let off the hook.
I’m angry. I hate when my Mom’s friends apologize for their sons after they’ve hit or pushed me, and I feel sick when I hear adults say, “boys will be boys.” I hate when I’m told to “sit with my legs together,” and when I’m told to be “lady-like.”
If being lady-like means that I feel I have to apologize to rude men on the subway when I’ve done nothing wrong, then I want nothing to do with being a lady.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls here in New York City. On day one of camp, my new friends and I were told that instead of saying “sorry” when we messed up or when we wanted to step out for using the bathroom, that we ought instead to say, “I ROCK,” and take ownership of our awesomeness. I like this. I like it a lot.
Apologizing for small offenses is degrading when not everyone is being forced to apologize for their actions. For now on, instead of saying sorry for asking questions, being curious, or, as it feels is expected sometimes, for simply being a girl and breathing, I’m going to save my apologies for when I’m, you know, actually sorry.
Meanwhile, dudes, if you’re reading, do me a favor: next time I bump one of your legs that has invaded my subway seat, how about you snap your legs together, sit up straight, and recognize that you owe ME an apology for YOUR rude behavior. (While you’re at it, go say sorry to all the girls you shoved when you were a kid. Despite the fact adults never made you accountable for your actions, I’ll tell you now that you acted like a total jerk.
Anevay is a homeschooled New Yorker, cellist, Doctor Who and Sherlock fan, and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. She travels with her mom, Melissa, and is an avid hiker, having most recently hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail, and before that, through the Swiss Alps, Iceland and Peru. She is also a blogger with the Wandering Educators Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program, and recently had a story republished on All Digitocracy.