Stop Worrying About Women’s Apologies — Address Men’s Defenses

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It is said, ad infinitum, that women apologize too much. I’ve spent a non-trivial amount of time wondering what “too much” means when I regularly wish the men in my life would apologize more.

While women are said to apologize more than necessary, men’s defenses are often impenetrable. Neither of these is good, but there is no national campaign to lower male defenses, as there is for women’s apologies.

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The reason we feel in the right to scrutinize women’s behavior over men’s is likely the same reason that behavior exists in the first place — it’s business as usual for women to shoulder the blame. As women, we’re constantly scanning our realities for things we might be doing wrong, so suggestions of change are welcome; it’s what entire industries — diet, beauty, wellness — are built on.

The most effective way to help women apologize less is to encourage men to take more accountability.

The issue of women’s over-apologizing is born from the lived reality that blame is regularly placed on women.

It’s a by-product of male defensiveness, a refusal by the people around us to acknowledge fault in situations of discomfort. To focus on women apologizing less without addressing this defensiveness in the slightest is an exercise in futility — it’s a waste of our time.

If we want women to apologize less, we should encourage men to take more accountability.

Women are constantly greasing the wheels of social interactions. At any given moment, my brain is firing on whether or not a text came off the wrong way, if I took too long to respond, if I wasn’t supportive enough on the phone. Do I have to do this? Certainly not. Should I do it less? Definitely. Do I wish men did it more? Absolutely. I see this thoughtfulness in nearly all of my female friends, and — I cannot stress this enough — I appreciate it.

Studies show that it’s not that men know they should apologize but refuse to, it’s that they fundamentally believe they have less to apologize for. They are their own arbiters of when an apology is owed, a mindset that falls counter to the impact over intent model (commonly used in organizing and activist work).

In this model, if someone feels hurt, even if it was not intentional, that person deserves an apology because they were, however unintentionally, hurt. Adherence to this relies on one’s ability to let someone else decide when an apology is due, to let that person’s opinion, as the impacted party, take precedence. It requires a surrender of control.

At its core, defensiveness is a means of self-protection. It’s rooted in fear, allowing us to affirm the views we want to hold about ourselves and avoid confronting flaws we may be avoiding. Unfortunately, many of our messiest flaws can only be exposed in relationships with other people, rendering them unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Even when we’re trying our best, we mess up. Women have long internalized this (to a harmful degree) — that we are constantly messing up — so we take it less personally when someone points it out. But many men seem to associate the possibility of a mishap with an attack on their entire character.

If I thought that someone pointing out a mistake was equivalent to them telling me I was a terrible person, that the notion of a small crack in my character meant that my entire self might be exposed as flawed, I would probably be impervious to the thought of it, too.

“It’s said that men generally have more confidence, but it seems to fall apart in the face of criticism.”

The hardest part of apologizing is acknowledging fault. And there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what this means. As if, by saying sorry for doing something bad — admitting an act was hurtful to someone else — one is somehow admitting to being bad, when this could not be further from the truth.

It’s said that men generally have more confidence, but it seems to fall apart in the face of criticism. It takes far more confidence to confront your flawed, messy self truthfully, to trust feedback from others, and to admit fault.

Last year I endured an experience with a man who treated me with regular disrespect but insisted — to me and himself — that he cared about me, and thus never acknowledged or apologized for the crux of his behavior. His social media feed is full of feminist signaling, but when confronted with examples of why I felt hurt, he made excuses, went silent, or said he didn’t remember the details.

I trusted his reasoning and fuzzy memory at first, as women are wont to do, trying hard to be patient and explain. But eventually, his web of defenses was so elaborate it became impossible to deny.

His walls of self-protection were impenetrable, while I combed through every interaction searching for what I did wrong. It took me all year to realize that my hurt was valid and not imagined, that his behavior wasn’t my fault, that I did, in fact, deserve an apology.

We see this avoidance in big and small ways regularly: empty statements from abusers, men interrupting in meetings without a second thought, small shifts in blame when we express feelings of hurt in our relationships.

My friend recently recounted that, after a twelve-hour shift at work, her boyfriend had forgotten to pick up the pizza she’d requested for dinner. When she expressed disappointment, he got upset. In scenarios like this, which I hear about constantly, it blows my mind that the man’s reaction is not to simply apologize.

If I knew someone I loved was upset by something I did, it would come out of me quicker than my next breath.

“Offering men the tools of vulnerability and self-reflection needed to own their flaws is just as critical as offering women the tools of self-defense.”

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I’ve tried many times to ask the men in my life to apologize more, only to end up backing down — forced into a position of apology by the very people who urged me to do it less — because to not do so is to endure an uncomfortable conflict with no end in sight.

Even bosses have felt in their right to tell me not to apologize so much as if we're a great feminist service. But if a woman were to request that a man apologize more — an act so rare it’s hard to imagine — it would likely be seen as offensive or emotional.

Women having to play by men’s rules, despite the arguable inferiority of said rules, is not new. It’s the Lean In version of feminism, the Dry Bar version of feminism, the notion that if women just work hard enough we can upend our own confines by aligning ourselves just right within the very structures that confine us.

It’s thought that urging women to apologize less supports our self-worth, that apologizing makes us feel small in some way, and of course we shouldn’t feel the need to say sorry for our very existence. But offering men the tools of vulnerability and self-reflection needed to own their flaws is just as critical as offering women the tools of self-defense.

“It’s essential that these two things are differentiated — admitting that you did something that hurt someone is not the same as you, yourself, being a hurtful person.”

I’ve found that the most vocally “feminist” men often have the hardest time of all admitting fault. They do it in controlled ways, acknowledging their privilege on Instagram when nothing is at stake. But in intimate relationships, when confronted with the specifics of their behavior, they shift into denial.

As if by apologizing, they might reveal they are not the Good Guy they take such pride in being. In so persistently defending that impossible persona, they are, however inadvertently, further pushing themselves away from it.

It’s essential that these two things are differentiated — admitting that you did something that hurt someone is not the same as you, yourself, being a hurtful person. It’s not a stain on one’s character to admit fault. In fact, the opposite is true.

The more one refuses to admit a fact that is utterly undeniable (if a person is telling you in good faith that they were hurt, whether you intended to or not, you did do something hurtful — we all do it), the more hurtful you inevitably become.

Provided it’s done thoughtfully, someone expressing what they need or voicing the ways in which they feel offended is not a personal attack. It is an opportunity to give that person what they are asking for — to understand an interaction or interpretation and mend it. If done sincerely, the act of apologizing is a gift.

And if men apologized a little more, I have strong feeling women would do it far less.

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Emily J. Smith is a writer and founder of the dating app Chorus. She focuses on relationships and gender and has been featured in Medium, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, and more. Follow her on Twitter.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.