Sorry I’m Not Sorry I’m Sorry

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The new Pantene commercial that premiered online this week is an advertiser's take on an Upworthy-worthy moral: These Women Stopped Apologizing, and What Happens Next Will Make You Want to Buy Our Shampoo. 

The minute-long spot begins by showing women apologizing for all kinds of inanities, like interrupting a meeting or bumping elbows with a stranger; it ends by replaying the same scenarios, minus the sorries: 

Just what all of this has to do with shampoo is hard to say. But however well intentioned the ad’s message may be, it doesn’t accurately reflect the modern evolution of the word sorry and the way it’s used, particularly by women, today. Yes, research has shown that women do indeed say “sorry” more than men, Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguist who has studied gender difference and apologies, said in an email. But the word isn’t automatically a sign of weakness — and it isn’t even always an apology.

Instead, Tannen explained, saying “sorry” is a way of “taking into account the presence of another person.” It’s not necessarily a way of accepting fault or blame, in other words. “It’s focused out — as in, ‘I’m sorry that happened’ — but is often taken as an expression of an internal state, as in ‘I think everything is my fault,’” Tannen said. And it’s a versatile term, used in many other ways, as well — think of the difference between “Sorry, but those shoes are hideous” and “Sorry, but do you have the time?”

Among Britons, Tannen said, the word is used in these ways by both women and men, but in this country, American women are more likely than American men to use the word in its not-strictly-apologetic forms. “I see this as the more general phenomenon that language almost never means what the dictionary definition says; it's used the way others use it — as a ritual,” Tannen said. “But those who don't share the ritual tend to take the words literally. Since American men don't tend to use ‘sorry’ this way, they mistakenly take women's use of it literally, as an apology.”

So the answer might not be to encourage women to stop saying “sorry”; instead, it might be time we understood what the word really signifies. Sorry, but sorry doesn’t always mean what you think it means.