Sometimes, when I apologize to my husband during an argument, I picture cartoon versions of us, our bodies turned into stereotypes. An Asian woman, curtained by her hair, lowers her head into her chest. A white man sits next to her on the couch, almost basketball player-height, clad in flannel and tattooed— shortcut for a kind of desirable millennial. You can see her sitting on her legs, knees indenting the seat cushion. You can see her tilting forward, melting. You see her kneel while he faces you, his eyes the unbroken blue of a sky you walk under and smile.
I am learning to say sorry even if I am not told sorry first, even when there might never be a sorry. When we’re both at fault, my husband always apologizes first. In those moments, I feel my shoulders start to unpinch themselves. He begins to become beautiful again in my mind. “Sorry!” I say, brightening, as if the word weighs nothing. “Sorry,” he says, he repeats, until he believes something is wrong with him.
A few years ago, I realized I don’t apologize, outside of a casual sorry that I’d be late, or sorry for losing an email. Light apologies, like a greeting, thanking someone for waiting for me—but never in a serious conversation between people trying and failing to understand each other. When, even between friends, it felt like anything you said could expose you, turn into a target on your back.
I’m embarrassed by this lack in myself and immediately blame my parents, who, during my childhood, I’d never heard say sorry to each other, my brother, or me. Then I rationalize my personality: nonconfrontational—or lazy—to the point I’ll agree with someone to avoid sharing my different thoughts. This makes sense, I tell myself. I make sense.
Women are stereotyped as over-apologizers. When I tell a friend I’m writing an essay about apologies, she asks if it’s because I apologize too much. I tell her I, too, am trying to excise the extra sorrys from my emails, texts, and everyday conversations. But I’m also—if not more—interested in the apologies I can’t seem to say. Articles I find online usually focus on the first kind of sorry. In a Vogue article from November 1978, Jane O’Reilly describes the “agonizing problem” facing women, citing a series of unnecessary apologies, from running into someone with a shopping cart, to bad weather, to choosing a boring movie. She gives examples of women apologizing to neighbors, family members, strangers, a dog, a dining chair. “Women seem to feel responsible for all environmental problems and for everything else that might affect the happiness, comfort, and well-being of our loved ones. We are sorry our husbands are tired, and we are sorry our children have too much homework,” she writes. Towards the end of the article, she pinpoints the source: “Apologizing too much is probably part of women’s fear of success. It reflects guilt, low self-esteem, a touch of misplaced arrogance.”
A 1995 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Sally Steenland clarifies the difference between a sorry that takes responsibility for blame and a sorry that means, “It’s too bad that happened.” For women, she writes, the second kind of sorry is what linguistics professor Deborah Tannen calls a “conversational ritual,” but since men’s modes of conversation are dominant, women end up misunderstood, misinterpreted. What should women do? “Probably nothing. Instead of feeling guilty or going into therapy, women would be better off learning a bilingual style for the office.” She ends with Tannen’s suggestion that, if co-workers tell women to stop saying sorry, they flip it back on them: “You should say ‘I’m sorry’ more often. It would make you more likable.”
In 2015, Sloane Crosley wondered in the New York Times why women are still apologizing even after there are so many strong and confident female role models. She argues, contrary to popular belief, that a woman’s sorry is actually assertive, a reflex for having to bend their words and bodies into what’s desirable to men, a revolt against power structures. “So we should stop,” she writes. “It’s not what we’re saying that’s the problem, it’s what we’re not saying. The sorrys are taking up airtime that should be used for making logical, declarative statements, expressing opinions and relaying accurate impressions of what we want.” I think of emails I already spend too much time writing, fearing how long it’d take to articulate what I really want to say.
Apologizing, it seems, is yet another way women must fix the way they look.
In the house where I grew up, my dad regularly angered my mom, who yelled at him while my brother and I didn’t fall asleep at night. I couldn’t hear what they were fighting about, but I knew he’d done something she righted with her yelling. My brother, a typical teenager, angered my parents, who still bring up times he ignored them as if wanting an apology. I almost never got mad at my dad or brother—it was my mom I clashed with. We only argued a few times a year, but each time was intense. She didn’t let me buy an ‘N Sync CD, she wanted me to stay in-state for college, she stressed me out telling me how to put away dishes or clean cooking utensils. Most of the things we argued about were dumb or minor, amplified by my feeling that she couldn’t understand me or didn’t want to try. It was that feeling I resented, sunk into. While I cried and hiccupped sometimes for hours at a time, writing in my journal in all-caps, my statuesque mother went about her day like nothing had happened, which was true: for her, nothing had happened. She’d done nothing.
After crying or not crying, my mom and I emerged, eventually, from different parts of the house, ready to move on. She’d been ready. I was defeated and ready. My skin buzzed in the aftermath; underneath the anger I hadn’t yet shed, a fraction of me was grateful to avoid the awkwardness of an apology from her.
After spending my life studying whiteness, measuring myself against it, I tell my husband I understand white people better than they understand me. I take on the responsibility of explaining my family to him. At first I think this is a two-way street.
“Let’s explain our families to each other,” I say to him early on, advised by my brother and sister-in-law who are also in an interracial relationship. This is how we don’t say sorry, I tell him, this is how my mom is always right. This is how to wash greens to remove all the invisible sand from their leaves. This is why we rinse utensils from the drawer before cooking or eating. This is why we fight for the bill, this is how to fight not wanting to pay in the first place, this is how to give up fighting. This is how we just started saying “I love you” at the end of phone calls. This is us removing slippers before walking on the rug.
Last year, I vacationed with my parents in Vancouver while my husband, a special ed teacher, finished out the last month of his school year. Each night, we returned to our IKEA-outfitted Airbnb satisfied by gardens and Chinese food. Each day I almost got too annoyed with my parents but didn’t, waffling between trip-planning stress, getting used to spending all day together, fearing for their aging bodies, enjoying time I don’t usually have with them, and laughing at their quirky habits. We ate steamed free-range chicken and mango shaved ice together. I researched many things online. My dad strayed from Google Maps as usual. My mom took many photos of me posing under rhododendron archways and on a rock, a waterfall sparkling to my left. She linked arms with me and complained about my dad. “You and your brother are more mature than him,” she said, by then an old assertion of hers.
The second to last morning in our garden apartment, over oatmeal and tea my parents brought in their suitcase, I told her about my brother’s new cookbook, Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.
“Chris said your cooking is no salt, no fat, no acid, no heat,” I said, repeating a joke my brother texted me a few months before when he got the cookbook. We’d grown up hiding chips in our bedrooms, instructed to peel the skin off chicken nuggets. Cooking oil was banned at one point. So were tomatoes, which had irritated my mom’s stomach lining for a few years. My brother and I nicknamed her cooking style LHC for low heat cooking. I laughed a little retelling his text.
“That’s not true,” my mom said. She didn’t usually wear makeup, only lipstick, and it was too early in the day to “put on her lips,” as she said. I could see inches of white hair down the middle of her part. For years she’d been indecisive about dyeing or not dyeing her hair—afraid it would cause cancer—deciding to go gray, then redyeing again before a friend’s son’s or daughter’s wedding, her family coming into town, or bible study. I was happy to see she had decided to stop.
“Pretty much, though,” I said. I wanted her to acknowledge the joke, like something she’d enjoy if only she’d be more open-minded.
“Avocado has fat,” she said. She sipped her tea. “I use oil! Butter sometimes.”
“But isn’t it funny? And mostly true? Think about it,” I said, scooting out the white plastic dining chairs that were a step above folding chairs. I rinsed my oatmeal bowl. I could feel the edges of my mood. Should’ve planned for a shorter trip, I thought. “You love low heat cooking. That’s just one thing.”
“That’s not true what you’re saying about me.” Her tone flattened, sharpened.
“Fine, okay,” I said. Feeling like a teenager, I left the kitchen for my hospital-white room with the hot covers. I got into bed and called my husband.
He talked me down. It was annoying, he agreed, but I was probably annoyed from the trip generally. My mom’s tone had made me feel bad—it sucks to feel misunderstood. He nudged me to the bigger picture. I didn’t want to see the big picture, but what would make the rest of the trip manageable?
We hung up, and after an hour in bed of feeling hurt, I decided to apologize. But not without trying to get her to apologize to me too.
The first of four entries of “apology” in the Oxford English Dictionary defines the word as “the pleading off from a charge or imputation, whether expressed, implied, or only conceived as possible; defence of a person, or vindication of an institution, etc., from accusation or aspersion.” Published examples of the word date back to the 1500s. But no one today uses “apology” like English minister Francis Trigge did in 1589, when he published An Apologie or Defence of our Dayes on the English Reformation. This first sense of the word reflects its Greek roots: the two halves of the word mean “away, off ” and “speaking.” Together, they mean “a speech in defence.”
The second entry of “apology,” at least in definition, loses the formality and urgency of the first. Instead of “pleading off,” which makes me think of the body shaped into repentance, desperation—bent knees, clasped hands, pleading eyes— the second entry uses the language of the rational: “justification, explanation, or excuse, of an incident or course of action.” In 1598, Shakespeare wrote in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “His enter and exit shalbe strangling a Snake; and I will haue an Apologie for that purpose.” But in 2020, I think of apologies for late arrivals or emails—anything easily explained away, that doesn’t incite emotion. I think of non-apologies, whose main structure is the excuse.
The third entry defines an apology as “An explanation offered to a person affected by one’s action that no offence was intended, coupled with the expression of regret for any that may have been given; or, a frank acknowledgement of the offence with expression of regret for it, by way of reparation.” Its earliest documented usage appeared at nearly the same time as the second entry, but it’s the more enduring definition of the two, what most of us today think of the apology. While the explanation of intent and acknowledgement of the offense are interchangeable here, the regret has no substitute.
The last entry recognizes bad apologies: “Something which, as it were, merely appears to apologize for the absence of what ought to have been there; a poor substitute.” In this last evolution of the word, the meaning of the word becomes the empty shell of the word, a fac?ade. Besides “hipster,” I can’t think of any other words like this—though I’m sure there are more than two. In 1754 in The Connoisseur, a London newspaper: “Waistcoats edged with a narrow cord, which serves as an apology for lace.” In 1874 in The Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster: “To swallow a hasty apology for a dinner.”
Although it’s since mostly disappeared, in the DNA of the word is the idea of self-defense. I’m surprised but not too surprised to learn this. I think of my apologies as so vulnerable, just because I’ve said them. Under the human surfaces of an apology, I imagine a lacquer like a protection of myself.
During visits with my in-laws, when we’re alone in my husband’s childhood bedroom, I tell him: this is why I don’t know what to say at dinner, this is me outside of your family’s humor, this is me mentioning writing about racism, this is me breaking the golden rule of whiteness by saying “white,” this is a lot of gifts to receive at Christmas, this is my first stocking. We look at the blue walls of the room, sore from sleeping on a full-size bed. My husband believes I don’t like his family. I do, I insist. He doesn’t feel like he can say how he feels about mine.
A common idea on relationships says couples fight the same fight over and over. The fight might look different on the outside, or at the start of the fight, but the same few issues are at its core. “But you guys don’t yell,” I remember a friend saying to me once when comparing our dynamics with significant others. “Have we never had a fight then?” I ask my husband later. We laugh and decide to still call our fights fights. There’s no yelling, but there’s often crying, usually on my part, but sometimes on his. It’s an hour or a few hours, it cuts into our bedtime, we become angrier we’re losing sleep, but we always want to get the fight over immediately and won’t sleep on it. I picture couples who take time to cool down like adults, separate rooms where they become calm again. But aren’t these the same people who yell at each other? I take stock of our fights otherwise. They boil down to:
1) My husband is easygoing and I’m detail-oriented. He’s nonconfrontational and I’m ready to comment on the texture of rice he made, the forgotten produce sticker from the bell pepper now in our curry, his nose hairs, or the bathroom counter overdue for cleaning. He’s forgetful, he says and thanks me for reminding him. I’m not shy. Things add up. He feels like he can’t do anything right and I won’t give him grace. I feel like I’ve just offered information, that I’m the one keeping this house together.
2) The texture of rice he made isn’t right; he doesn’t understand why we pretend to want to pay for friends at restaurants, why I want him to put groceries away at my family’s house when he’s already in bed. He feels like his thoughts don’t matter. “A racial misunderstanding,” I describe to a friend.
3) I’ve made my husband feel bad, but he’s also made me feel bad in the process. He’s so good at saying sorry that he says it right away, but I explain my intentions: see? I feel better, but my husband’s feelings have not been addressed. His thoughts don’t matter, he thinks.
In Vancouver, I went back out into the common area and asked my mom if she wanted to talk. She’d put her feet up on the couch and was flipping through the Airbnb-provided magazines. My dad was watching TV. If I could guess the show: a Hallmark movie where two white people are the stars of a predictable and moderately photogenic love story. They were always set in small towns with the woman’s hair curled perfectly. My dad loved these movies. Spellbound by the TV, his mouth fell open into a little “o” that my family loved laughing at, as much as we laughed at his taste in movies. He was the one we’d usually gang up on—my brother, my mom, and I in on a joke he couldn’t enter.
My mom and I sat back down at the dining table where oranges, bananas, apples—my parents loved to travel with fruit—and teabags had collected.
“Sorry I made you feel bad,” I said, trying to keep the words from sounding like they hurt me. If I looked at it from her perspective, I could seem like a comedian who thought their audience was too uptight or chaste. “It was a joke,” they’d excuse themselves in order to say anything. I hated that and quickly dismissed the thought.
“My cooking isn’t the same as before. You don’t eat that much at my house,” she said, naming new and old dishes. The hard edges had mostly left her voice; she was just explaining now. But this wasn’t what I wanted. She wasn’t ready to have this conversation, I thought.
We went back and forth, not getting each other. I slipped back into my anger. I’d put myself out there and wasn’t being rewarded.
I tried a different angle: “I know you didn’t mean it, but your tone felt harsh and made me feel bad.”
“Well, I got mad fast. When you said something that isn’t true, I got mad fast. That’s what happens,” she said. Annoyingly to me, I could feel tears.
“When someone does something that makes you feel bad, it feels good to hear an apology, right?” I used myself as an example: “Like when I apologized at the beginning of the conversation. I made you feel bad. And I said sorry. And I felt bad too. So it would be nice to hear you say sorry too.”
“If you want,” I added.
“Oh. Sorry,” she said over the fruit and cold tea.
All I wanted to do was go back to my room, ice my eyes, and read a boring magazine, but it was time to eat a tasty lunch in Chinatown.
See how I left my crying out of the scene? I’d been crying all morning, the kind that interrupts speech. I’d made a pile of used tissues—making wontons, people say in Cantonese. My cheeks were salty, streaked. I initially mentioned crying in the scene, but I thought it made me look juvenile. An unreasonable crying adult daughter. I couldn’t help it, I thought. I didn’t like this about myself— how something so small could turn into a nightstand full of tissues. But I reasoned that fights with my mom, even years into adulthood, could transport me back to the emotional space of my teenage self, the helpless feeling I didn’t know how to process. I felt the same as I did then, and my body reacted.
What I could do differently now was curate an apology from my mother. I felt as if I were teaching her something that she needed to know or should’ve known. In that way, I thought, it was a triumph.
Although I use “apology” and “sorry” interchangeably in this essay, the dictionary, of course, doesn’t, and neither do most people, when they’re actually saying it to someone. Often reserved for professional situations or written correspondence, “I apologize” sounds much more formal than “I’m sorry”—cold, even. “Sorry” differs in the number of meanings, too: sixteen pages of a saved PDF on the adjective and noun versions of “sorry” versus two pages of “apology.” “Sorry” first appeared in Old English, compared to the 1500s, when “apology” was first documented. And, most interestingly to me, “sorry” focuses on emotion and state of being. If you’re sorry, you can be “expressing or showing sorrow; mournful,” “causing distress or sorrow; painful, grievous, dismal,” “grieved or vexed about a particular thing; regretful,” “feeling or expressing remorse; penitent; apologetic,” “wretched, pathetic; poor,” “designating a poor or inferior example of something; of little account or value; pathetic,” or “having sympathy or pity.” You can say sorry, and you can also be sorry for yourself, sick and sorry, sorry-looking, sorry-eyed; something can be better safe than sorry or a sorry-go-round. While the evolution of the word “apology” is greater across four definitions, “sorry’s” larger constellation of meanings in everyday use demonstrates, to me, the emotional complexity of being or feeling sorry. Even though each dictionary entry is generally meant to stand alone, I see how the different meanings of sorry can overlap each other in a single experience. I can feel sorry for you at the same time I feel sorry for myself. I can feel regretful and mournful, but also pathetic and inferior. I can say, be, or feel sorry all at once, or only one or two of those at a time.
While no one apologized at home, I learned about repentance from my church. Founded in 1976—the same year my mom immigrated from Hong Kong to Texas—the Chinese Bible Church of Maryland led separate worship services for Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and youth congregations by the late ‘90s, when I started middle school. In his mid-20s at the time, my youth pastor Joseph liked U2 and Radiohead, approved of drums for the worship set, and styled his hair, in hindsight, like Lance Bass. His sermons offended a faction of our immigrant parents, which made us like him even more. He signed his emails, “hosive.”
I grew up at CBC but didn’t love church until I was old enough for the Teen’s Group led by Joseph, where I became best friends with Miranda and Carol Ann. We called ourselves LMC for each of our first initials, handmade invites to “LMC shindigs,” joined the church drama team, prayed together, coordinated extravagant all-black outfits for Black Friday, and colorful but equally flashy Easter ensembles. One Easter, Miranda didn’t wear underwear to church to avoid VPL. No one could tell, but already envious of her attention from boys, I admired her even more. When friends at school asked what kind of church I went to, I said, “Nondenominational,” feeling superior, as if we’d risen above the petty rules of regular churches, the ones with denominations.
Compared to my elementary school (where there were two other Asian families besides mine, the Yamasakis and my half-Filipina friend Helena) and my middle and high schools (where I met Asians who dyed their hair, excelled at cat-eyes, played sports, and befriended popular white kids, not just any old white person), I thrived in this environment. I didn’t care about politics, and I didn’t think then how conservative the church was. I cared about belonging, happiness, and being cool, each of which my church, for the most part, helped me with—if only within the physical space of the building. In a 2017 Huffington Post article, Liz Lin describes the tension between spending formative years in an Asian American church where she felt “seen and accepted and understood, both by God and the people around [her]” and her now progressive politics—a reason why I also stopped attending Chinese churches. But while she calls progressive white or black churches that don’t necessarily understand her cultural context her next-best options, after college, I fell in love with the people and values at a multiethnic church in Chicago, ironically pastored by a white man.
Besides that, Lin mirrors my childhood experience back to me: how the Chinese church was where she both experienced God’s unconditional love and accepted the complexities of her Asian American identity. I can see how my acceptance of myself—as a kid dreaming of whiteness—can’t be disconnected from my understanding, at the time, of God’s acceptance of me. My favorite worship song in middle school was “In Your Hands,” originally by Reuben Morgan, but covered by the more famous Hillsong United. The lyrics begin:
I’m so secure, You’re here with me
You stay the same, Your love remains
Here in my heart
So close I believe, You’re holding me now
In your hands I belong, You’ll never let me go
Even though the bridge of the song goes, All along / You were beside me even when I couldn’t tell, in middle and high school, I chased after the feeling of God, which was measured in abstract terms of distance: “close,” “near,” “distant,” “far away.” Sin was the major reason why you felt distant from God—or feeling like God was distant from you (this positioning, which had implications for whether distance was your fault or not, was also confusing). Other reasons could be that you weren’t prioritizing God, or that God was intentionally doing his own thing, but if you trusted, diligently read your Bible, and prayed, [He’d show you] more of [Him] / more of [Him], as the song said. It was hard to tell which reason it was at a given moment.
Regardless, distance could be remedied through repentance. I didn’t think I did anything that bad though. Too shy to offend or argue with anyone, I was a good friend and daughter: a goody two-shoes, I imagined people said about me. But the Bible said, “Should God then reward you on your terms, when you refuse to repent?” “[God] makes them listen to correction and commands them to repent of their evil,” I read in Job, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” In order to right my relationship with God, to feel close to Him again, I sometimes prayed, “Sorry, God, for being far away from you.” I apologized for my laziness: “Sorry for not praying, for not reading the Bible, sorry for not prioritizing You.”
When I repented like this, I was grateful the humility factor of apologizing to a person—the worst part, I thought—was removed from the interaction. But my confessions felt woefully unmatched to the intensity of the Biblical command. And because of that, I felt as if I wasn’t feeling correctly.
I barely think about repentance anymore, focusing instead on what I find to be the more interesting and—yes—more palatable aspects of my faith: the generosity and creativity of a higher power, the possibilities of love bigger than the typical human transactions of love. But I think there must be something repentance can teach me about apologies.
On BibleGateway.com, when I search for verses that contain the word “repent,” 78 results show for the New International Version, the translation I grew up on. An imprecise way to measure a book’s theme, but 78 doesn’t seem like much in a translation of—I learn from Google—727,969 words. At first, I’m surprised only about a third of the search results are from the Old Testament, which I understand as rooted in the idea of good deeds and working for your salvation. This Old Testament God, I believe, is an angry God, requiring submission and repentance as the posture of submission. But I wonder why I’m so surprised: it also makes sense that repentance figures even more heavily in the New Testament, which emphasizes God’s grace over whatever good deeds you do, positioning Jesus as the supernatural bearer of everyone’s sins. Here, repentance grants you access to God’s grace like a kind of spiritual passcode you must embody and not just recite. I realize what I’m struggling with is how to categorize repentance: is it a good deed like in the Old Testament, or an act of imagination and faith like in the New?
I want an answer from the search results, but first I bristle at the language that embarrasses me to be a Christian—repentance as a command, the implication of hell if you don’t—concepts I realize I’m skirting in the current iteration of my faith as an adult. I prematurely hypothesize that the command aspect is gone from the idea of repentance in the New Testament. Linked to the idea of good news, the coming kingdom of God, and “times of refreshing...from the Lord,” repentance is more positive in the New Testament, but it’s still presented, in many verses, in the imperative. I’m struck also by the introduction of sorrow into repentance (“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret,” 2 Corinthians 7:10). Patterns don’t cohere, and I wonder if I’ve constructed false binaries into the idea of repentance. Not just one thing or another, repentance seems like many things at once, or could be different at different times: a good deed, a leap of faith, an imperative, and a response to sorrow.
If I think of apologizing as an act of both work and imagination—like repentance—I begin to feel closer to the complexities of the word.
I keep thinking about repentance and the imperative. What if apologizing, by extension, wasn’t framed in the context of something you had to do? I fantasize I would be a kinder, more loving partner and daughter. But can apologies be disconnected from requirement or transaction, and should they be? I apologize because I feel required to, but I also want to, sometimes, underneath not wanting to. In order to love my husband and my mother better, I grit my teeth through which an apology might eventually escape. I apologize in order to make my loved one feel better, but also, of course, to make me feel better.
My husband is nine or ten in the memory he tells me of being apologized to by his dad. To set the scene in my mind, I conjure up an unrelated photo of him— one of my favorite of his childhood photos—a boy holding the end of a French fry mid-bite, a bowl cut, the sheen of a folding chair, a faraway look in his eyes like he’s picturing himself elsewhere, not his aunt’s wedding where he’s wearing a bow tie and suspender shorts. In the photo, he’s five or six, not even the right age, but I love how much I can recognize my husband in this little boy. The look: a sweet, nervous energy, a boy, his blue eyes, and a French fry. In the memory, my husband is at church in rural Indiana when the pastor asks the congregation to raise their hands if they did some shameful activity my husband can’t remember now. His dad raises his hand for him. This is before my husband outgrew him, before my father-in-law, without telling anyone, shaved off his Tom Selleck mustache for good. I picture my husband as a kid who’d long been afraid of his dad’s temper— his dad’s hand circling his wrist as he raised it into the air. “Sorry,” his dad tells him. “Immediately?” I ask. “Yeah, right then,” my husband says. Even though I know his family apologized to each other when he was a kid, I’m surprised at how quickly this happens: my husband’s faraway eyes, my father-in-law’s mustache when he leans down to say the word.
A 2010 study, often cited in how-to-apologize articles, argues against the stereotype that women apologize more willingly than men do because of male egos. The University of Waterloo study found that women did apologize more times than men, but it was because women, who have a lower “threshold of offensive behavior,” believed more things were offensive. Men apologized, they found, at the same rate as women did.
My husband says sorry more than I do, which signals that his threshold of offensive behavior is lower than mine. I can’t wait to tell him about this study over dinner, so when he’s taking a shower after biking, I ask him through the curtain, “Do you think you have a low threshold of offensive behavior?” I sit down on the toilet in our pink-and-black-tiled bathroom with no elbow room. He doesn’t know what I’m talking about, so I start from the beginning: the research, the stereotypes, the fragile egos, the number of apologies, the proportions.
The study makes sense to him. “Men get away with more offensive things, so they don’t think that many things are offensive,” he says above the sound of the water. “Like you, you’re always worried about how you word your emails. Men don’t know because they don’t get penalized as much for saying things wrong.”
“Yeah,” I say, “But you apologize more than me, which means your threshold of offensive behavior is lower.” We get mixed up between what low and high thresholds mean, but once we figure it out, I ask him, “So how does that work with you who apologize so much?”
“I don’t know,” he says, toweling off. He pauses. “You’re more careful than me, but you also don’t think a relationship can take any offenses. You’re more careful so you don’t think you offend anyone.”
“Oh no!” I say, laughing. In my mind, I tremble at the recognition. He said it so matter-of-factly, like he loves me.
“But you think relationships can take people being offended at each other. So you’re less careful, so you apologize more to make up for it?” I say, heading towards the kitchen where our lentils are almost cooled down. Feeling vulnerable, I feel better reminding us of his carelessness.
In my informal research of my Asian friends’ families, rarely do Asian parents apologize. One of my friend’s parents do, but the rest either show they’re sorry through extra niceness or are always right somehow, like my mom. I think of saving face and emotion suppression, like not saying “I love you”—common in Asian culture generally, but that appear to varying degrees in different families, and sometimes not at all.
In a 2019 New York Times article, Kristin Wong describes the negative impacts of apologizing as a woman. She quotes Deborah Tannen, who says, “Women are in a double bind. If we talk in a way that people think is self-effacing, like apologizing a lot, or not talking up what we’re good at, or acting like we’re better than everyone else, we’re underestimated at work. But if you talk in a way that you’re confident, then you’re seen as too aggressive.” I think of how this applies to Asian-American women: already in danger of being read as self-effacing women, racist stereotypes efface them even more. The common synonyms for self-effacing—sweet, passive, agreeable—look good or bad depending on the angle.
As someone who has always made herself small and been perceived as small, I work on filling space, arguing for my perspective, for my white husband to understand my experience of marrying into a white family, for others to see what I see. I’m not thinking of race when I make my loved ones feel bad, but I can see now how an apology feels like the opposite of enlarging myself, even if I believe, on other people, an apology can look like power.
“The solution, Dr. Tannen said, is to find a balance between your own communication style and how others may perceive that style,” Wong writes. I don’t know if I’ll ever find that balance with racism tilting the other side down.
The term “non-apology”—according to the OED, “the failure or refusal to apologize; (now frequently) a statement that takes the form of an apology but does not acknowledge responsibility or express regret for what has caused offence or upset; an insincere or unconvincing apology”—entered our discourse earlier than I thought, in the 1800s. Though the definition doesn’t specify, I associate non-apologies most strongly with public apologies, many of which happened in the recent wake of #MeToo:
Two years before receiving his landmark sentence, Harvey Weinstein wrote in a statement, “I appreciate the way I’ve behaved with colleagues in the past has caused a lot of pain, and I sincerely apologize for it... I so respect all women and regret what happened.” Louis C.K., who admitted to masturbating in front of women, wrote, “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen. Thank you for reading.” Eight months later, C.K. was back on stage, at the Comedy Cellar in Manhattan. “But if I did behave then as [Anthony Rapp] describes,” said Kevin Spacey in a Twitter note, overshadowing his statement with a coming out story, “I owe him the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior... This story has encouraged me to address other things about my life.” Charlie Rose, accused by eight women of sexual harassment, wrote, “It is essential that these women know I hear them and that I deeply apologize for my inappropriate behavior. I am gratefully embarrassed. I have behaved insensitively at times, and I accept responsibility for that, though I do not believe that all of these allegations are accurate.” Matt Lauer, after being fired by NBC: “Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed. I regret that my shame is now shared by the people I cherish dearly.” Mario Batali with the fan favorite: “I have made many mistakes and I am so very sorry that I have disappointed my friends, my family, my fans and my team. My behavior was wrong and there are no excuses. I take full responsibility... p.s. in case you’re searching for a holiday-inspired breakfast, these Pizza Dough Cinnamon Rolls are a fan favorite.”
One of my favorite non-apologies is from Shane Gillis, after podcasts in which he used racist and homophobic slurs were unburied from the Internet. Tape revealed him, a comedian just hired by SNL in September 2019, laughing and complaining with another white friend. Of everything he said—including the actual slurs—I kept thinking about the boy in a Chinese restaurant he mocked for practicing English. “We had to move tables, it was so annoying. That’s more annoying than any other minority playing music at a restaurant loud on their phone,” Gillis said. In a Twitter statement before he was fired from SNL, after footage went viral, he described himself as “a comedian who pushes boundaries” and “happy to apologize to anyone who’s actually offended by anything I’ve said.” I found this wording hilarious. I followed news coverage religiously, then got carried away by the rest of the world. A month later, I returned to Twitter and found the note had disappeared.
That he deleted the tweet, at first, satisfied me, as if he’d become ashamed of the non-apology, didn’t want it to be read. But I couldn’t imagine him feeling that way, whose unchanging career I pictured as a red carpet rolled out in front of him, who joked in his first comedy show post-scandal, “I have been reading every one of my death threats in an Asian accent.” So I settled for the gesture, if not the reality, of a white man believing something he said should not have been said.
I write about these non-apologies with a great amount of distance. I’m relieved to lay blame: on the horrific behavior, the terrible apologies. Who doesn’t want to see someone powerful—straight, white, and male—fall from grace?
I remember the difference between a public and private apology is audience. I remember these men were felled at the cost of women who don’t have the luxury of not remembering. I think of how close I can be to a non-apology.
Published in 2017 by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, the study on apologies that gives me hope found that people who are more self-compassionate are more willing to apologize than those who aren’t, because self-compassion helps them deal with failure, “withhold self-judgment,” and “become less overwhelmed by experiencing negative emotions.” I’m glad to think of myself as not self- compassionate and know myself better. I see this in me. I don’t read deep enough into the study to find out if any of the participants learned self-compassion, if any tips for learning it are offered, or how difficult it is to learn, but the blue links in my PDF could take me anywhere.