Silence Of The Ma’ams

Silence Of The Ma’ams

My girlfriends and I were out for drinks. One was talking about her bad day at work and how she found herself apologizing to her boss (though she wasn’t at fault). The conversation turned to how women are constantly saying “I’m sorry” to everyone: boyfriends, parents, strangers at the supermarket. I even apologized to the bartender at one point! Why do women seem to sheepishly apologize, often for no reason?

—Not Sorry

The value of “I’m sorry” gets seriously watered down when it covers everything from plowing your SUV into somebody’s living room to yoohooing the waitress: “Sorry, but could I get a fork?”

Because an apology is an admission that we’ve wronged somebody, the “pre-crime” weenie-ism above seems to make no sense. It’s not like the waitress was hired to read gripping crime novels, and how dare you tear her away from finding out who the real killer is when you could just eat your polenta with your hands?

However, “sorry” isn’t always an acknowledgment of “I did something awful to you.” Sometimes it’s a preemptive measure: “Don’t do anything awful to me.” Psychologist Joyce Benenson explains that women, across cultures, are prone to take this precautionary approach — basically the verbal version of walking on eggshells — in hopes of averting social and physical conflict and avoiding retaliation.

Girls and women use more tentative, hedgy-wedgy language, frontloading even the most innocuous requests with meekspeak like “I normally wouldn’t ask” and “I hate to bother you.” “Numerous studies have shown that girls and women use polite speech much more than boys and men,” notes Benenson. Women also use more speech “softeners”: weasel phrases like “In my opinion” and “To be honest” and apologies taken to absurd extremes: “I’m sorry, but would you mind not standing on my foot?”

Because boys and men tend to be direct, women’s mealymouthing is — unfairly — stigmatized as a defect. Benenson explains that men and women evolved to have different roles and motivations (in line with their differing physiologies) in order “to ensure the survival of their children to adulthood.” For example, males, from boyhood on, specialize in defense: fighting the enemy and protecting the babymakers of the species.

Now, maybe you’re thinking, “Hello? It’s 2022, and dudes are trotting off to Techbroland with an iPad, not a spear.” Well, yeah. Unfortunately, they — and all of us — are stuck with an outdated psychological operating system. As evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby put it: “Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind” with “Stone Age priorities” — meaning perfect, right now in 2022, for solving our hunter-gatherer ancestors’ mating and survival problems and often a mismatch with the realities of our lives today.

Accordingly, women’s duck-‘n’-cower deferential politeness, including promiscuous apologizing, seems to be a survival tactic — one that, from ancestral times on, shaped female emotions (which drive behavior). “Politeness, as … subordinate apes know well,” reduces interpersonal conflicts and “diminishes the chances” of being injured or killed, observes Benenson. “It is no accident … that women have greater levels of nonverbal and verbal politeness than men.”

Benenson is alluding to psychologist Anne Campbell’s “staying alive” theory. Campbell, researching sex differences in assertiveness, explains that ancestral women, vastly more than ancestral men, were critical to children’s survival. Women seem to have evolved to fear physical harm from “risky confrontations,” which could jeopardize their ability to have children or feed and care for the ones already dropping their Legos all over the floor of the cave.

Ancestral women who survived to pass on their genes (and the psychology built into them) to women living today were likely those who opted for low-risk ways of going for what they want: using hints, hedges, and manipulation instead of assertive direct “asks.” Whether a woman is a mother or plans to be is immaterial: “Even if a woman never has a child, she still sees the world through a different lens than a man,” observes Benenson.

That said, a propensity to behave a certain way is not a mandate. Knowing you’ve got the female emotions software package, you might pre-plan to be more direct: Practice asking for what you want plainly, without apologetic airbags, and then do it: both in conversation and by pruning the “Excuse me for existing”-speak from your texts and emails before you send them. Be prepared to backslide, and by “be prepared,” I mean maybe choose to laugh. To be human is to be fallible, and habits — especially those going back bajillions of years in human evolution — have deep roots.

Eventually, however, asserting yourself should become more of a norm for you. Chances are this will amp up your self-respect as well as others’ respect for you — probably because being around you no longer feels like being beaten to death with an olive branch.

(c)2022, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email @amyalkon on Twitter. Weekly podcast:

Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence,” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2018).

Categories: Advice Goddess