Voices

The social currency and cost of ‘sorry’

Robyn D’Arcy, Senior Analyst at Wunderman Thompson introduces new exclusive media research on why women are still saying sorry more than men and what we should do about it.

Robyn D’Arcy, Wunderman Thompson

Senior Analyst

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Over the years, male singers have released songs where they apologise almost twice as much as women singers. This is one area, however, where life doesn’t imitate art; sorry really does seem to be ‘the hardest word’ for men in comparison to women. This International Women’s Day, Wunderman Thompson’s Data department investigate the ubiquity, impact and meaning behind the word ‘sorry’, the well-established finding that those who identify as women say it more, why this is, and what we can do about it.

Our analysis took this study online. Once jokes, memes and sarcasm were removed, people who identify as women on social media comprise 69% of all UK posts containing the words ‘I’m sorry.’ When analysing the gender breakdown of character apologies on TV, we saw similar, and worse, percentages weighted towards women; 61% in ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ 73% in the latest season of ‘The Crown,’ and 85% in ‘I Hate Suzie,’ for instance.

It is not the case, however, that men consciously choose not to apologise. Research has shown that they have different ‘thresholds’ of what type of behaviour constitutes wrongdoing and therefore warrants an apology. Studies also demonstrate how differences in inclination and obligation derive in part from external pressure, much of which comes from the media.

‘Sorry’ is a form of social currency, with a potential cost for its under-use, as well as its over-use.

Robyn D'Arcy

Women are expected to say ‘sorry’ more and for less

Our analysis uncovered that social media posts calling on women to apologise demonstrate three times more disgust and anger than posts demanding the same from men and six times more hatred. In the UK, ‘disgraceful,’ ‘disgusting,’ ‘ashamed,’ ‘unacceptable’ and ‘stupid woman’ are amongst the top phrases used in these posts.

In the UK press, there has been almost double the volume of content about criticising women than about criticising men since 2013. Men are criticised most frequently for career moves, tactics and their impact in wider industry and outcomes; we see this particularly for footballers and politicians.

Celebrity women are criticised in the highest volumes, mostly for choices in parenthood and appearance: ‘breastfeeding,’ ‘baby,’ ‘weight,’ ‘snap,’ ‘dress,’ ‘makeup’ and ‘Instagram’ are amongst the most used words in these headlines. Meghan Markle, Katie Price, Stacey Solomon and the Kardashians are ‘SLAMMED,’ ‘SHAMED’ and called on to apologise the most. Women celebrities make headlines when apologising on behalf of a celebrity boyfriend or husband as do women politicians on behalf of male politicians.

Late 2014 saw one of the most significant peaks of press interest in women apologising. Simultaneously 2014 saw 8.5k+ headlines globally about multiple celebrity women having private photos leaked. For many, the initial assumption was that these women would or should say sorry, before a narrative shift saw us question how we could have ever expected the victim to apologise for the crime, an assertion that the MeToo movement has amplified.

Yet the propensity for women to say ‘sorry’, and the expectation for them to do so, goes beyond conveying apology; it applies to every use and understanding of the word.

‘Sorry’ takes on multiple meanings and interpretations  

Research has revealed how ‘sorry’ alleviates awkwardness, fills silences and acts as an access point to conversation, particularly for women at work. Our analysis found that increased use of video calls not only reveals the anxiety and insecurity many women feel about taking up ‘too much’ vocal space, but also perpetuates it.

There’s a clear association drawn between over-apologising and imposter syndrome. Our analysis found that 67% of those describing imposter syndrome symptoms online self-identify as women as do 74% of those posting about feeling as if they are an ‘inconvenience’ or a ‘burden.’ 

‘Sorry’ therefore helps some women to enter discussion and establish their presence and right to speak. ‘Sorry’ can provide a leeway that prevents their words from appearing ‘too’ assertive, affirmative or intentional. And in this context, ‘sorry’ also conveys its most typical intention, to apologise but not for an act, rather for who women are, or how we could be perceived. ‘Sorry’ becomes reflex and habit.

Recognition of this has inspired thought leadership, comedy and initiatives to counteract it 

As research about women apologising peaked and the 2010s progressed and ended, guides on avoiding ‘sorry’ as a filler word filled the Ted stage and LinkedIn feed. Feminist comedians underlined this whilst making light of it. A Google email plugin that makes typos out of superfluous ‘sorry’s was launched.

We’re becoming more unapologetically ourselves and it’s time for the workplace and wider culture to encourage that.

Robyn D'Arcy

Yet telling women to ‘just stop saying sorry’ can be problematic

Firstly, insisting that women should jettison ‘sorry’s from their vocabulary overlooks potential consequences. ‘Sorry’ is a form of social currency, with a potential cost for its under-use, as well as its over-use. Research has demonstrated how omitting the word, and generally being pushed to act ‘more assertively’, often an obvious synonym for ‘more like a man’, can lead to women being perceived as less ‘warm’ and feeling more awkward, less empowered- and less themselves.

Secondly, women apologising isn’t what’s keeping sexism alive; it’s the cyclical perception that women are less capable, and therefore the male standard should be the goal. The more we associate the word ‘sorry’ with women’s speech patterns, the more use of the word is considered ‘wrong,’ and the more women who say it are disadvantaged.

Thirdly, any way of telling women to adapt is expecting them to offset a sexist imbalance. It puts the onus on them to be the group compromising and doing the work to fit the male model, rather than those already in power. This echoes the waning ‘lean in’ philosophy, which has seen positive sentiment drop by 12% since its coining and eponymous book release in 2013. 

What can workplaces do? 

If ‘sorry’ fits naturally into some women’s speech patterns, calling them out for this is not the answer. Recognising how and why ‘sorry’ is used and nurturing a workplace, and wider culture, where women feel listened to rather than talked over is more likely to improve confidence and lessen the word’s prevalence and use as default. 

And what can we do?

We can examine in our language what we do for ourselves and for others. We can strip obligation and guilt from how we use the word ‘sorry’ and do what works best for us. And on a much broader level, we can be confident about however we decide to self-present.

Women, particularly Black women and queer women continue to lead a movement around agency, autonomy and living on one’s own terms, both on and offline.

TikTok videos tagged #sorrynotsorry have attracted 3.4 billion views. Songs where women refuse to apologise for who they are or what they do have risen by 25% since the noughties, and now exist in volumes approximately double those of male artists, a hopeful inverse to the stat we began with.  We’re now searching for content, books and memes about being unapologetic and authentic at an increase of up to 5,000%.

We’re becoming more unapologetically ourselves and it’s time for the workplace and wider culture to encourage that.

Guest Author

Robyn D’Arcy, Wunderman Thompson

Senior Analyst,

About

Robyn is a Senior Analyst at Wunderman Thompson specialising in data analytics and storytelling. With expertise in social listening, competitor benchmarking, audience targeting and content auditing, Robyn uses actionable insights to build cohesive and inspiring creative, UX, CX and media strategies. Since joining Wunderman Thompson, Robyn has developed a range of methodologies with a particular focus on social, search and web analysis. Most recently, these have included Instagram audience segmentation, TikTok trend analysis and purchase journey mapping. With international experience across multiple industries, Robyn’s clients have included KitKat, Bose, Rolex, GSK and Microsoft.

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