It seems that female empowerment is an advertiser’s new best friend. Just look at Dove’s Real Beauty Sketches, Always’ #LikeAGirl, and CoverGirl’s #GirlsCan, each boasting millions of views: now Pantene is getting in on the action with its new commercial, Not Sorry.
The ad challenges women to stop apologizing reflexively. In general, viewers have reacted positively, but, as one article in The Atlantic suggests, there may be more to the story of “sorry.” The author suggests:
“One of the major problems with all this—besides the one embedded in the insistent equation of apology with weakness, and stubbornness with strength—is that “sorry” is, at this point, pretty much meaningless.”
So, is “sorry” meaningless or misunderstood? Take sociologist Erving Goffman’s characteristics of an apology: “expression of embarrassment or chagrin; clarification that one knows what conduct has been expected and sympathizes with the application of negative sanction; verbal rejection, repudiation, and disavowal of the wrong way of behaving along with vilification of the self that so behaved.” The Atlantic points out that these qualities aren’t present in the average, off-hand apology, like the ones featured in the video.
Of course, the author continues, the reflexive apology may just be an additional use of the word, rather than a constant expression of patriarchal oppression. In 1997, Deborah Levi proposed four types of apologies:
- “‘Tactical” (acknowledging the victim’s suffering in order to gain credibility and influence the victim’s bargaining behavior)
- “‘Explanation” (attempting to excuse the offender’s behavior and make the other party understand that behavior)
- “Formalistic” (capitulating to the demand of an authority figure)
- “Happy-ending” (accepting responsibility and expressing regret for the bad act)
Still, Pantene’s commercial doesn’t seem to show any of these kinds of “sorries.” Instead, one New York Times article specifies these apologies as “gestural.” Linguist Deborah Tannen tells The Times,
“Language almost never means what the dictionary definition says; it’s used the way others use it — as a ritual. 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.”
It seems sorry might be misunderstood by both apologizers and the recipients of those apologies—heartfelt or tossed-off. Ending women’s casual response apologies might promote empowerment, sure, but the very concept of the over-apologizing woman may actually be nothing more than a stereotype,as The Atlantic asks, is the notion of women as being overly apologetic could be “yet another label, yet another double standard that sticks, stubbornly, to women?”