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Sorry to ask but ... do women apologize more than men?

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 2227 GMT (0627 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new ad asking why women apologize so much goes viral
  • Men have a higher threshold for what they feel they should apologize for, according to studies
  • Women use "sorry" to seem more likable, many women say
  • Men apologize just as much as women, according to the men we interviewed

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two girls. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- It's been an issue in our household for years.

Every time I say "sorry" for bumping into my husband in the kitchen or knocking over a glass of water or selecting the wrong burrito from the freezer -- events that don't require an apology -- my husband questions why I'm apologizing.

Honestly, I don't think I truly got his point until I started hearing my oldest daughter, now 8, say the word over and over again.

In fact, when I told my daughter the subject of my latest piece, she asked if I was going to write about her and how she picked up the "sorry" habit from me.

I know. It is painful to hear that, but what's the cliché? You can't solve a problem until you admit you have one.

Ad: "Why are women always apologizing?"

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A new ad by the hair care company Pantene, which has nearly 3 million views on YouTube, asks why are women always apologizing and raises the question of whether women say "sorry" more often than men.

In the ad, a woman says "sorry" when she opens the door to a colleague's office, another woman says it when she starts to speak at the same time as her male friend, and another when a man sits down next to her and knocks her elbow off the chair's arm rest (the man doesn't apologize).

"I am guilty of saying 'I'm sorry' way more than I really want to admit," said Janis Brett Elspas, a mom of three in Los Angeles and host of the blog Mommy Blog Expert.

"It's a sorry state, but I think I even say 'I'm sorry' to my kids and our little dog," said Elspas, conceding she uses the word when she steps on her dog or even when she asks her teenagers to do all the dishes they've left in the sink (a holdover of her habit of apologizing to them even when they were babies).

Micky Morrison, a mom of two in Islamorada, Florida, says she uses the word too often as well: "for forgetting to turn the lights off, for hitting a bad shot in tennis, for the house being a mess, for dinner being late."

"I think it's because we are taught from a very young age that we should try to please, so we find ourselves apologizing for anything that might be displeasing to someone else, even when it's something that has nothing to do with us," said Morrison, an author and founder of BabyWeightTV.

Amanda Rodriguez, a mom of three in Frederick, Maryland, said her husband banned her from starting sentences with "I'm sorry, but."

"He said I don't need to feel sorry for stating my feelings," said Rodriguez, who blogs at Dude Mom. "I realized he was right. That's exactly what I was doing."

Research: Men have higher threshold for apologizing

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There is actually research to back up the thinking that women say "sorry" more often than men. Two studies by the University of Waterloo in Ontario and published in the journal Psychological Science back in 2010 found that while men are just as willing as women to apologize, they had a higher threshold for what they felt they needed to apologize for.

In one of the two studies, men said they would apologize less frequently than women for doing things such as inconveniencing someone they live with or being rude to a friend.

Women, more often than men, tend to apologize out of a desire to seem likeable, believes Avital Norman Nathman, editor of the motherhood anthology "The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality."

"There are awful stereotypes that come along with being a strong woman at work -- harpy, shrew, bitch, etc. ... and a 'sorry' here or there can soften our perceived image," said Norman Nathman, who also hosts a blog called The Mamafesto.

The overuse of the word "sorry" is about power, says Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take the Lead, a women's leadership movement.

"The group with less power (in this case women) will always exhibit language, including body language, consistent with lesser power. Sort of a form of curtseying or kissing the ring," said Feldt, who has started teaching what she calls gender bilingual communication skills in her women's leadership courses.

"The good news is that once we are aware of the behavior, we can change it. These are learnable skills."

"I don't need to apologize for ... "

CNN\'s Kelly Wallace says hearing her daughter say \'sorry\' all the time made her realize how much she was saying it herself.
CNN's Kelly Wallace says hearing her daughter say 'sorry' all the time made her realize how much she was saying it herself.

Sharon Rowley, a mom of six in Bedford Corners, New York, said since she realized how often she said "sorry," she's become much more mindful about it.

"I don't need to apologize for being busy, for asking for help. I don't need to apologize for taking a few hours to get back to someone via e-mail or to return a phone call," said Rowley, founder of the blog Great Family Road Trips.

Jessica McFadden, a mom of three, says she used "sorry" constantly in her first jobs out of college. As she's gotten older, she's made an effort not to use it to fill a conversation or as a replacement for a passive aggressive statement.

"I think it is embedded insecurity," said McFadden, host of the blog A Parent in Silver Spring. "Putting 'sorry' before our words negates the power of the words we say next and lets the listener know we are not completely comfortable communicating them."

What's critical, many women say, is sending a message to our girls that they don't have to say "sorry" unless they truly did something wrong,

"Our girls need to learn their voice has every right to take up space in a conversation, in a room, in a negotiation, in an argument, etc." said Melissa Atkins Wardy, author of the book "Redefining Girly" and a mom of two.

"Taking up space with your voice is like claiming your spot at the table. It is speaking your mind and not apologizing for it, nor asking permission to have your own opinion."

The Gender Divide

When I asked men if they believe women say "sorry" more often, I must admit I was surprised to learn most didn't think there was any difference.

"'Sorry' is not gender exclusive," said Buzz Bishop, a father of two in Calgary, Alberta, who blogs at Dad Camp. "It's a nice and polite thing to say. I say it. My kids say it. My wife says it."

Marty McAndrew, a father of four from Winter Park, Florida, agrees.

"I think people generally say 'sorry' when they've unintentionally slighted someone. I don't think gender comes into play in my experience."

Terry Greenwald, a divorced father of three, also doesn't believe there is a difference between men and women when it comes to the frequency of apologizing. "I, personally, have been told that I apologize a lot. I don't see it as a weakness, but some women infer that it is."

Geoff Moore of London, Ontario, said he actually thinks men say "sorry" more than women, and believes the apologies are a sign of politeness and good morals and values.

Is this another "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" issue? How can women and men see it so differently?

"I think it's hard for people to look outside their lived experiences and (they) may not notice women apologizing with the frequency that it occurs," said Norman Nathman, the editor of the "The Good Mother Myth."

Feldt says the differing viewpoints come back to power. "When you have the power and the privilege, you also have blind spots," she said.

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"I'm sorry I didn't stop saying 'I'm sorry' much sooner"

Ever since I saw the Pantene ad and chatted with some colleagues about it, I've been much more aware of the frequency with which I say "sorry."

And now, my daughter and I have started a contest to see who can say it less.

Carolyn Gerin, co-founder of Wedtechsummit.com, the technology conference for the wedding industry, said she used to say 'I'm sorry' so much it was almost second nature.

"Now, surrounded by very strong women founders and entrepreneurs in San Francisco who lead by example, I'm sorry I didn't stop saying 'I'm sorry' much sooner."

Diane Smith, an Emmy award-winning television journalist and co-author of "Obsessed: America's Food Addiction and My Own," recently bought a T-shirt after a conference she co-produced encouraging women to know their value in the workplace. The T-shirt reads: "I am not sorry."

I think I need to get one for myself -- and my daughter.

Do you believe women apologize more than men? Share your thoughts in the comments or tell Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.

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