Men, according to conventional wisdom, are stubbornly unwilling to apologize. Countless pop psychology books have referenced this reluctance, explaining that our egos are too fragile to admit we’re wrong, or we’re oblivious to important nuances of social interaction.
Sorry to disrupt that lovely feeling of superiority, ladies, but newly published research suggests such smug explanations miss the mark. Writing in the journal Psychological Science, University of Waterloo psychologists Karina Schumann and Michael Ross report that men are, indeed, less likely to say “I’m sorry.” But they’re also less likely to take offense and expect an apology from someone else.
Their conclusion is that “men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.” Whether on the giving or receiving end, males are less likely to feel an unpleasant incident is serious enough to warrant a statement of remorse.
This thesis was confirmed by two studies. In the first, 33 male and 33 female college students filled out an online questionnaire each evening for 12 nights. They described up to three instances that day in which “you apologized to someone or did something to someone else that might have deserved an apology.” They also described up to three incidents in which “someone else apologized to you, or did something to you that might have deserved an apology.”
As expected, the women reported offering more apologies than the men. However, they also reported committing more offenses. After taking this different threshold of perceived offensive behavior into account, “we found that the gender difference in frequency of apologies disappeared,” Schumann and Ross write. “Female and male transgressors apologized for an equal proportion of their offenses (approximately 81 percent).”
“It appears that once men and women categorized a behavior as offensive, they were equally likely to apologize for it, and their apologies were similarly effusive,” they conclude. “Contrary to popular speculations, men’s apologies were as detailed as those offered by women.”
In a second, confirming study, “women perceived three imagined offenses and their own recalled offenses as more severe than men did,” and thus more deserving of an apology, the researchers report.
So men are less likely to perceive a situation as reaching the level of significance necessary to warrant an apology, whether they are the offending or offended party. This may reflect the fact that women “are more focused on the experiences of other people and on maintaining harmony in their relationships,” or that “men have a higher threshold for both physical and social pain,” the researchers write.
Either way, this disconnect creates “unfortunate consequences for mixed-gender interactions,” Schumann and Ross note. “For example, if women perceive offenses that their male romantic partners do not notice, women might interpret an absence of an apology as evidence that their partners are indifferent to their well-being. Similarly, men may regard their female partners as overly sensitive and emotional.”
Nevertheless, arguments based on faulty premises are particularly toxic and difficult to resolve, and the assumption that men know very well they’ve done something wrong but petulantly refuse to apologize for it, is often inaccurate. So before a disagreement escalates, it might be wise to take a step back and compare your perceptions of the situation in question. According to this research, “men and women unwittingly disagree at an earlier stage in the process: Identifying whether or not a transgression has occurred.”