Started reading Deborah Tannen’s Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work which is beautifully complicating the notion that women apologize too much:

The rituals of apologizing, softening criticism, and thanking can be used by women or men. But they are more often found in the speech of women. And all these rituals depend on mutuality. If one person apologizes and the other simply accepts the apology, or if one person is doing all the thanking, then the result is an imbalance—and a loss of face. Many of the rituals typical of women’s conversations depend on the goodwill of the other not to take the self-abnegation literally and to restore the balance. When the other speaker does not do that, the woman may feel like someone on a seesaw whose partner suddenly abandoned the other end. Instead of balancing in the air, she has plopped to the ground, wondering how she got there.

[…]

Men are more likely to be on guard to prevent themselves from being put in a one-down position, because of the social structure of the peer groups in which they grew up. Because boys’ groups tend to be more obviously hierarchical than girls’, and the lives of the low-status boys can be made quite miserable, many men learn to avoid the one-down position and develop strategies for making sure they get the one-up position instead. In contrast, many women learned from their experience as girls that human relationships should maintain the appearance of equality, and no one should take the one-up position in too obvious a way. This means women are less likely to have learned to avoid talking in ways that could give someone else the chance to put them in the one-down position. Quite the contrary, many of the rituals they have learned involve taking the one-down position but depending upon the other person to round off the ritual and pull them back up.

[…]

This example also shows how women’s and men’s characteristic styles, though equally logical and valid in themselves, often put women at a disadvantage in interactions with men. If one person is trying to keep everyone equal and working hard to save face for the other, while another person is trying to maintain the one-up position, the person seeking the one-up position is very likely to get it, and to succeed in assigning the one-down position to the person who has not been expending effort to stay out of it.

[…]

Someone who is told, “Stop apologizing” rarely thinks of replying, “It’s just a ritual; you should say, ‘I’m sorry’ more. It would make you more likable.” She is more likely to say, or think, “What’s wrong with me? Why do I apologize all the time?” Our understanding of language inclines us to look for literal rather than ritual meanings in words.

Fiona Voss @fiona