I often think about how women (as opposed to men) navigate their physical space, but the way we navigate conversational space seems like a parallel to the use of physical space.
To begin with, there are the drastically different ways that women and men are socialized to use eye contact and body language in conversation. Without even realizing it, we communicate all kinds of messages about dominance and submission as we speak with each other. But lately I’ve been thinking about female vs. male use of apologies, and what this says about our relative social standing.
It seems to me that my female friends and colleagues apologize a lot, and for things that aren’t even their fault. At work a few weeks ago, several people were late to a meeting because of a fire drill in an adjacent building. When a group of women who came from that side of campus arrived, they referenced the fire drill and apologized for being late. A few minutes later, three men from that same building came in and made no apology or explanation. Nobody seemed to notice. Several of the women prefaced their remarks in that meeting with “I’m sorry if this is something we should have covered last week…” or “Maybe I should already know this, but…” None of the men apologized, even when their questions or remarks made us backtrack on the agenda. And this is not an isolated experience.
According to Deborah Tannen and other researchers who study gendered use of language, this communication pattern is typical, and it makes a lot of sense. In many cultures apologies are generally made from those of lower social standing to those of a higher position, and rarely vice versa. Apologies are taken as a sign of weakness. Along with not initiating eye contact or breaking it first, stepping aside or altering your path to avoid a collision, and deferring to someone who talks over you or interrupts you, apologizing is a marker for those in a lower social position. It subconsciously sustains the hierarchy among a mixed-gender group.
So I think it should be an objective of all feminists to stop issuing all these unnecessary apologies. If you truly did something wrong or insensitive, by all mean apologize in a sincere manner. But when things happen that aren’t your fault, or if you’re unsure of the validity of your question or remark, or if the conversation just seems kind of awkward, resist the urge to apologize to smooth the situation over. Take responsibility for your own faults, but no one else’s. Social equality dwells in the big picture and in the details, and the way we interact with others on a daily basis is a significant, but practically invisible, detail.