The Politics of Apologizing

The English language is full of broken words. Consider the word “literally” for example. I use the word (literally) a thousand times a day to mean just about anything besides its technical definition. Though the word is meant to convey an idea that is “free from exaggeration or embellishment”, many dictionaries have added a second definition to account for the sheer volume of misuse littered throughout colloquial language.


Sure, the way we use the word “literally” might not have a monumental impact on the way we live day to day life, but it is broken nonetheless. While this is a small, relatively harmless breaking of the English language, there is one word that has become so twisted in meaning that we’ve seen the effects throughout the court system and in the political sphere: “sorry.”


The word “sorry” has been at the center of multiple controversies in recent years, one of many being from the feminist movement. An extensive study found that women apologize at a far higher rate than men because they are socialized to do so. The use of the word is meant to soften the blow in social situations and essentially make the speaker appear less aggressive. As a result, women are expected to be reflexively polite, making anything short of absolutely apologetic seem out of line.


Though this seems fairly trivial--a mechanical detail at first glance--this trend goes up all the way to the highest court in America. "More Perfect"--a podcast dedicated to the inner workings of the American Constitution--spends a whole episode on the idea of women being interrupted at an obscenely high rate (up to three times more than men) and how they cope with these interruptions. When women first enter the court they use a tactic called “polite speech”; rather than asking a question, they’ll apologize for asking a question: “I’m sorry but I need to ask a question.” This allows the men (even lawyers, although it’s highly against protocol to interrupt a Justice) to talk over female Justices at an even higher rate. They found that as these women spend more time in court, the use of this apologetic tone slowly fades and they become more assertive.


As much as this seems like a step in a positive direction, there are still negative consequences for women who choose to assert themselves (rightfully so) on the bench. Justice Sotomayor, when analyzed for speech pattern, was the fastest to adapt to this less apologetic language that men serving already start out with. Labeled by the media as “a terror on the bench” or “a bit of a bully”, Sotomayor was punished for using the same unapologetic cadence that her male counterparts use to interrupt her in the first place.


We can trace another distinct fracture of the word back to the 1980s. Member of the Massachusetts Senate Bill Saltonstall tragically lost his daughter who was hit by a car while riding her bike. While the family could’ve pressed charges, they wanted something much simpler--an apology. When years past and the driver never reached out to the family, the senator made a possible connection between the lack of apology and a law that linked “I’m sorry” to an admission of guilt, or fault. "Radiolab"  dived into the effects of “apology legislation” that cropped up all around the country following this single tragic act. The Massachusetts law was popular and fairly noncontroversial. By the year 2012, according to professor of law and psychology at the University of Illinois, Jennifer Robbenault: “thirty-six of the states have introduced legislation ‘allowing someone to say “I’m sorry”.”


Though this law simply aimed to allow human connection without possible legal repercussions, it had some major impacts not foreseen by lawmakers. The hosts of “Radiolab” wondered if the lack of consequences made apologies “less real” as they became completely interpersonal, lacking external risk the legal system once imposed. At the core of an apology, afterall, is vulnerability and when lacking personal sacrifice the “sorry” becomes a string of polite words and not much more. With this new, evolving definition, one surprising beneficiary were corporations.


This law allows corporations to essentially strike a bargain with those who suffer at their hands. Since the word “sorry” has no legal strings attached, a company can come to a victim’s aid (with the presence of a lawyer more often than not), put forth what seems like a generous and sincere apology, and an offer (financial or otherwise). Many times victims will be moved by the company’s posturing and accept, hoping to move on from whatever tragedy they have suffered. While the company can put forth the facade of a humbling apology, this tactic is more of a legal strategy than a human connection because it allows the company to skip the court process and deal with the unknowing victim.


“Radiolab” even found that one of the champions of apology laws around the country were “lobbyists who advocate for corporate interests who seek to reduce liability for harms costs.” In the 90s, shortly after a group of states passed these laws, one company was able to save over $75 million in eight years. What started out as an attempt to allow more sincere apologies was soon turned into a corporate weapon used to pacify their victims.


We might never be able to repair the word “sorry”. From women moving away from the word to claim their space in places of power, to companies using it to avoid responsibility, we have moved so far away from a simple gesture of humility and true repentance. Rather than a tool to mend relationships, the word is used to manipulate more often than not. So there’s one simple question: what do we do with this broken word?


While there’s certainly no easy answer, I can think of one small starting place in my own life: mean it. As a woman navigating through spaces created for someone else, I will use my language wisely. Like the women serving on the Supreme Court, I will replace pacifying “reflexive politeness” with the more direct vocabulary my male peers feel no hesitation using in the classroom. As a person who struggles with confrontation, I will consider my apologies with more sincerity. I will allow the word to humble me rather than using it as a shield to hide from impending consequences. In a world that’s trying to politicize connection to others, I won’t let this word slip into meaninglessness, and I encourage you all to do the same.