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I’m Sorry, But...

Speech differences between men and women reflecting sex-based socialization

By Nian Hu

“I’m sorry—this is a stupid question—but I was confused about question six. Could we do that one again maybe?”

For the longest time, I didn’t understand what I was apologizing for. Was I sorry for asking a stupid question? Was I sorry for wasting my teacher’s time?

“I’m sorry, but can I just say that I think the first proposal was better than the second? I could be totally wrong; I have no idea. Just throwing it out there.”

Was I sorry for not being sure if I was right or not? Why do I keep saying “I’m sorry, but..."?

I am not alone in this. Alexandra Petri recently wrote about this phenomenon in the Washington Post, calling it “Woman in a Meeting” language. A well-known Pantene commercial depicts women apologizing unnecessarily in various situations. Amy Schumer addresses this in a humorous skit where a panel of successful women spend the whole time apologizing for increasingly ridiculous things.

The message is clear. While men are able to deliver their opinions and ask their questions in a blunt and straightforward manner, women often equivocate, apologize, and frame everything they say in vague language.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to speech differences between the sexes. However, these differences are not always what you would expect. For example, there is a commonly-held idea that women talk a lot and men don’t talk as much, embodied in the stereotypes of the strong, silent man and the chatty, nagging woman. You may have even heard a frequently-cited claim that men only speak 7,000 words a day, while women speak 20,000.

It turns out that those figures were based on unreliable data from a secondary source—in other words, they came from nowhere. Actual scientific studies have shown that men talk just as much as women—about 16,000 words per day. It does not appear to be true, therefore, that women are biologically wired to be more talkative than men, and that men are wired to be less talkative. In fact, there is little evidence that biological differences have a significant impact on behavior and speech. On average, men and women talk about the same amount.

But when it comes to the workplace or the classroom, men talk far more than women do. A study showed that women speak only 25 percent of the time in professional meetings, with men speaking nearly three times as much. And a study of Harvard Law School classrooms found that men are 50 percent more likely than woman to speak during class at least once, and 144 percent more likely to speak voluntarily at least three times. What's more, even during one-on-one conversations or conversations with friends, men have been documented to interrupt women an average of 2.6 times per three-minute conversation. How do we explain these speech differences, then, if there is no compelling biological reason?

Simply put, men and women have been socialized differently. Socialization is the concept that society expects different attitudes and behaviors from boys and girls, and that boys are raised to conform to the male gender role and girls are raised to conform to the female gender role.

In our society, girls are socialized to be polite and reserved, while boys are socialized to be funny and outspoken. The socialization begins at an early age. In elementary school classroom discussions, when boys call out answers they are more likely to be listened to, while girls who shout out answers are usually instructed to raise their hands. Parents interrupt girls twice as often and hold them to stricter politeness norms. We tell mischievous boys that they’re just being boys, but we tell misbehaving girls that they should act more ladylike.

Socialization doesn’t stop there. Society continues to enforce these standards of behavior. Women who speak firmly and directly are often viewed as “bitchy” or “aggressive.” Jennifer Lawrence recalled an incident when she gave her opinion in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner and a man working for her reacted, “Whoa! We’re all on the same team here!” And studies have shown that male executives who speak more often than their peers are deemed more competent, while female executives who speak up are considered less competent.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that women apologize before they speak? When women say “I’m sorry, but...” we’re not apologizing because we’re not sure if we’re saying the right thing—we’re simply trying to be the polite ladies we were socialized to be, downplaying our own power and softening our own voices so we are not deemed bossy, aggressive, or incompetent.

For the longest time, I didn’t understand what I was apologizing for. But now I know. We have been socialized in a society that encourages women to feel ashamed for taking up space and speaking their minds. Every time I said “I’m sorry, but...” I was apologizing for having an opinion, for using my voice, for existing.

And I’m not sorry anymore.

Nian Hu ’18, a Crimson editorial executive, lives in Mather House. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.

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