Why Do Men Keep Apologizing?

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Lori Moffett / Pool / Reuters

Golfer Tiger Woods apologizes for his sexual affairs during a press conference at the headquarters of the PGA Tour in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., on Feb. 19, 2010

Used to be that seeing a man apologize was a little like catching a glimpse of a Bengal tiger in its natural habitat: rare, thrilling, attainable only for truly patient souls. Now it's more like seeing a mountain lion on a busy highway. People wince, wonder how he managed to get himself in this situation and hope it will be over soon.

And it's no longer such a rare phenomenon. Recently, Mark McGwire (performance enhancer), David Letterman (wife cheater), Chris Brown (girlfriend beater), John Mayer (N word user) and even the reclusive Florida Tiger (serial wife cheater) have all tried to navigate their way across the Boulevard of Remorse to the safe shoulder of public forgiveness. But it's still a big enough deal that when men apologize, it's broadcast live on TV. For some, national coverage is not enough. On Feb. 24, Akio Toyoda, the CEO of Toyota, flew halfway across the planet to apologize in Washington: "When the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well."

Meanwhile, there have been very few prominent female apologies in recent memory. In January, Irish MP Iris Robinson resigned and publicly repented for cheating on her husband. But it barely made a ripple in American newspapers, even though her paramour was only 19 at the time. Why is it that we're seeing more high-profile apologies from men than from women? One big reason is that there are far more men than women in high-profile positions — and thus more men who are liable to have something to publicly apologize for. But there's also some evolutionary biology involved.

Researchers have long known that for women, saying sorry often and right after any offense is part of their conversational arsenal, one of the tools they use to keep relationships steady. It's more a course correction than a U-turn. Women are more likely than men to apologize when they're only partially to blame. They even say sorry when they're not at fault, as a way of expressing empathy. For men, an admission of a mistake has always been a little more fraught, tinged as it is with an acknowledgment of weakness. Therefore, the more alpha the male, the more difficult the fessing up.

According to the gold-standard work in this area, German scholar Peter Schönbach's seminal 1980 paper on what academics call "the taxonomy of accounts," there are four main ways people respond to their "failure events": the concession ("I did it, it was my fault, I'm sorry"), the excuse ("I did it, but it wasn't my idea/it was raining/the woman made me do it"), the justification ("I did it, but it was necessary") and the refusal ("I didn't do it"). Not to take issue with Schönbach, but he seems to have left two out, both male favorites: the deflection ("Mistakes were made") and the stonewall (complete silence).

Men say sorry the way celebrities arrive at parties: late, but with flourish. The concession, the type men seem to like least, is the most common public apology. Generally, if a guy has gotten as far as calling a press conference, he has tried one or two methods already — Woods was a fan of the stonewall — and realized he's going to have to go the Full Monty. The concession is brutal but efficient. As soon as Woods offered up his 13-min. halting mea culpa (male culpa?), people swiftly moved on to the next step of any interpersonal conflict: not wanting to talk about it. Toyoda should only be so lucky.

But why do men's apologies have to be such a big deal? A recent study found that in work situations, women apologized more frequently, but if men apologized, they were more likely to do so to women. And while women were more likely to say sorry to underlings, men were more likely to apologize to bosses.

This makes a lot of sense. In the end, the famous all have the same boss: the public. And the public is not satisfied with anything but a full accounting (unless you're a supporter of whichever White House Administration just ended). So you can either apologize to everyone, all the time, as women tend to do, or you can man up at some point and make the microphone your confessional. Sorry about that.