Recently, I was waiting to use one of the bathrooms in the Science Library, and as the student left the bathroom, she apologized to me, uttering, “I’m sorry,” as if emptying her bowels was a crime. Another time, an employee in Val apologized to me after all the boiled eggs were out, as if it was her fault that people were hungry and in dire need of protein. I can go on for days with stories of my encounters with the “sorry syndrome” for I am one of the victims who contracted this contagion freshman year.
Prior to Amherst, my life in New York City was nearly devoid of “Sorry about that” or “excuse me”—people move on with their lives after that bump or after accidentally stepping on your shoe on the morning F train to work. Now that I am at Amherst, I find myself wondering if excessive apologizing is simply the effect of living in a smaller community and not a large city. Or is it an implicit effect on my thinking, living in a college community that only recently became co-ed in the fall of 1975?
The frequency with which I hear “I’m sorry” uttered around campus may just have to do with the fact that Amherst students are typically unsure of themselves and have low self-esteem (GASP, usually don’t hear that one, do you?). Perhaps it could also just be that Amherst is such a small place that if we were to bump into someone and not apologize, that person could easily just find us another day and kick our ass. Okay, so I’m only kidding, but I think it’s healthy here and there to not take ourselves and our mission to “give light to the world” too seriously.
But before this turns into an instruction manual on the steps that should be taken in order to avoid saying sorry all the time, it is worth noting that psychologists have tried to tackle this funny issue through the lens of gender. According to a 2010 study at the University of Waterloo, men apologize less frequently than do women because they have a higher threshold for what they consider to be offensive behavior. Women are more likely to apologize for situations that men would actually find permissible and undeserving of an “I’m sorry, I should not have done or said that.”
Researchers also found that as both transgressors and victims, women are more likely than men to judge offenses as meriting an apology. In light of these findings, it is easy to assume that women tend to be more in tune with their actions and their emotions than men. However, we cannot believe this to be generally true, especially when the media so frequently and incorrectly portrays men as violent, assertive and overly concerned with sexual gratification. They are discouraged from being emotional because it is not the “macho” thing to do. But these are simply senseless stereotypes about men and women that only serve to perpetuate gender inequalities.
Women are portrayed as the exact opposite. From Destiny’s Child’s “Cater to You”, in which Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle sing at length about their desires to fully serve their men in every way possible, to Bible verses on a woman’s submissiveness to a man, women are and have been historically taught to embrace their subservient natures before the ownership of a man. If I then apply this notion to my experience at Amherst, my observation that 80% of the apologies I have received walking around campus have been by women (usually followed by a nervous smile and even a conversation about the interaction) suddenly starts to make a bit more sense. On the other hand, men usually acknowledge my presence, quickly apologize and move on with their lives.
By no means am I trying to come to a definitive answer to these questions, but I have realized that we cannot continue to apologize excessively for being human and making mistakes. Regardless of gender, we are all humans growing within the confines of communities and institutions. Check yourself when you apologize for petty things, a slight brush on the shoulder, using the bathroom and even walking through a door that was held open for us. Are you really apologizing because you genuinely care about that person’s feelings? Did you even look the person in the eye? Or is it just another moment in which it does not matter whether or not the person heard or saw you—you said it and now our egos appreciate it.
Sadly, we live in a fast- paced world that is slowly becoming less sympathetic, so it sucks how it can be so easy to have these kinds of superficial encounters with others. For this reason, whether you are a man or a woman, I encourage you to say sorry when you do mean it, simple as that.