Apologizing in Lasting Relationships

In the recent movie The Tourist, the characters played by Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie meet ostensibly for the first time on a train. Angelina is walking down the aisle and Johnny, who is seated, looks up from his reading. They stare at each other for a few seconds and then Johnny Depp says “I’m sorry.”

It is a funny scene because these are rarely the first words between two people who are just meeting for the first time.  It is funny also because, of course, there is absolutely no reason for Johnny to apologize.  He was sitting in his seat, minding his own business, and did nothing but look up. If he had been staring at Angelina then he would have had something to apologize for. But he wasn’t. They were simply making eye contact.

The scene is interesting also in light of recent research on gender differences in apologizing.  Karina Schumann and Michael Ross, psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Canada, were interested in studying the widespread belief that women apologize more than men.  Many people believe the difference is the result of men’s refusal to apologize and many explanations have been proposed: Apologizing is admitting failure or weakness; it is hard for their fragile male egos; and they feel less powerful when they apologize.

Schumann and Ross suggested two possible explanations for the gender difference: Women apologize more because (a) they engage in behavior that requires an apology more often than men do or because (b) their perception of what behavior requires an apology is different than men’s.

To determine which better explains the gender difference in apologizing Schumann and Ross asked participants to complete a questionnaire each evening. On each questionnaire they were asked to describe instances in which “you apologized to someone or did something to someone else that might have deserved an apology” and instances in which “someone else apologized to you or did something to you that might have deserved an apology” (p. 1650).

What do you think they found?  Do you think women apologize more because they engage in more behavior where an apology is deserved or because they perceive a greater number of behaviors as ones that deserve an apology?  If you thought the latter, you are correct.  Men and women were equally likely to apologize for events that they thought deserved an apology; women simply perceived a larger number of such events.

You can probably see how this finding might impact lasting relationships.  Women who perceive a behavior as one deserving an apology may well feel slighted when they don’t receive an apology. They may decide that the absence of an apology is a sign of a lack of caring or indifference in their partners when it is not. Rather than jumping to this conclusion, which may have serious consequences for the relationship, partners should communicate their distress over not having received an apology. They may find that their partner is surprised to learn that their behavior had been perceived as such and be perfectly willing to apologize.

In case you are interested…

Schumann, K., & Ross, M. (2010).  Why women apologize more than men: Gender differences in thresholds for perceiving offensive behavior.  Psychological Science, 21, 1649–1655.

About Alan Strathman

Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.