Posted in Communication, Compassion, Empathy

The Politics of Apology

Apology is in the news again. This time, the issue is not another feeble or failed apology from an errant public figure, but the gender differences surrounding the use and interpretation of the word “sorry.”

The subject has appeared this week in articles in  The New York Times (North, 2014) and on the CNN website (Wallace, 2014). The interest was generated by a television commercial for Pantene shampoo and the conversations that it has sparked. I admit, the commercial, which splices together many images of women apologizing, is powerful and painful to watch. But is the better alternative in the concluding frame: “Don’t be sorry”?

Wallace (2014) points out that women sometimes apologize to seem likable and to please others. North (2014) notes how women diminish their power and downplay their authority by apologizing when they have done nothing wrong. North then goes a step further and examines the many meanings of the word “sorry.” For example, “sorry” may simply be an expression of care, an acknowledgement of common humanity, or a polite acknowledgement that another person is present in a shared space.

Most importantly, as North concluded, apology is a marker of empathy and compassion:

… an understanding of the apology as a form of empathy may help us both when we’re offering apologies or when we’re encountering “sorry” out in the world. Maybe we’d hear “sorry” differently if we took it as a gesture of compassion, not … “a sign of weakness.”

If we assert our strength by refusing to use the word “sorry,” what might we lose?

North, A. (2014, June 23). When should we be sorry? The New York Times.  Retrieved from

Wallace, K. (2014, June 26). Sorry to ask but…do women apologize more than men? CNN. Retrieved from

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