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Sex and gender, Social and behavioural

Crossing gender stereotypes can make apologies more effective

New research finds that across a variety of settings, breaking gender stereotypes can affect how well apologies land.

09 February 2024

By Emily Reynolds

Not all apologies are created equal. Previous research has shown that some kinds of apologies are more effective than others, and that their success can (at least in part) be influenced by the gender of the person giving them. 

Writing in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Beth Polin and her US-based colleagues take a closer look how the content of apologies, as well as how closely they conform to gender stereotypes, influences their effectiveness. 

The first of the team's three studies looked at celebrity apologies posted on Twitter/X which had subsequently gotten press coverage in entertainment magazines. These apologies tended to reference a 'trust violation' — for example, a tweet by American singer Lizzo apologising for publicly criticising a delivery driver, or another by comedian Kevin Hart referencing unearthed transphobic tweets. The team then looked at how many likes each tweet had received as a proportion of the celebrity's followers, as well as the sentiments expressed in the comments underneath. 

The results suggested that women who deliver apologies which are not stereotypically 'feminine' (more "agentic") received proportionally more likes and more positive sentiment. Men who delivered apologies that were not stereotypically 'masculine' — which were here described as communal, sensitive, and warm — did not, however, see the same levels of support. 

In the second study, 336 participants read a scenario in which they were a client of an accountant who had broken their trust, filing an incorrect tax return which understated the amount the participant owed. Some read that this accountant was a man, and others, a woman. They then read an apology, designed to either be more agentic or more communal in tone. Participants then indicated how competent, benevolent, and trustworthy they felt the accountant was, and how effective the apology felt. Similar to the first investigation, the results suggested that apologies which subverted gender stereotypes were more effective, and positioned the women making them as more competent, and the men more benevolent. 

Interestingly, this was not the pattern participants anticipated. In contrast to the above findings, they reported believing that language which stereotypically matched the gender of those apologising would enhance their apologies. 

A final study replicated these findings, and extended them to the stereotypically feminine field of nursing. Even in this setting, counter-stereotypical apologies were more effective, especially for women.

Looking at the results of these studies overall, the team found that counter-stereotypical apologies given by women were seen as an average of 9.7% more effective. For men, this figure sat at 8.2%.

Each study saw the protagonist of the scenario make their mistake due to incompetence, which may have influenced assessment of their apologies; future research could also look at intentional violations, such as purposefully misrepresenting income in a tax return rather than simply making a mistake in one. 

This study offers a nice illustration of how the subverting gender expectations can affect the way an apology lands. The findings are worth baring in mind next time you really need to grovel; perhaps consider a counter-stereotypical approach to better assure forgiveness.

Read the paper in full: