One of my greatest skills is apologizing. I do it not only well but constantly. When people bump into me on the street, I say, “I’m sorry.” Right after “Take it” and “Good girl,” my third-most-used sex-talk phrase is “Sorry about that.” When housekeeping opens my hotel-room door, instead of just saying, “Can you come back later?” I go with “Sorry!” and then immediately follow it with “For being a privileged white male.” I am the anti–Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
But most guys suck at saying sorry. Women are brilliant apologizers. That’s because they’re comfortable being submissive. Often, as soon as they realize they’re wrong, they’ll cry, throw in sex or, in cases when they’ve done something particularly awful, both. The performances are so impressive that we often root for women to screw up just to see them apologize. I have no doubt there are disturbing Japanese and German porn sites devoted to women saying they’re sorry.
Part of the reason men are so bad at apologizing is that we never actually feel bad. In fact, we never apologize because we’ve done something wrong; we apologize because we got caught. Our brains justify all the ethical lapses we get away with: I have a right to lose money on poker since she spends it on clothes; a lap dance is to men what a massage is to women; Conan just wasn’t getting the ratings.
Because we don’t actually feel guilty and have no training in being subordinate, we apologize poorly. We make speeches that are 10 percent apology and 90 percent explanations for why we weren’t really wrong. Any apology with the word but or because in it is not an apology. Also, any apology delivered while you picture having sex with the woman you got caught having sex with is not an apology. You cannot feel truly sorry when you are shoring up the spank bank.
Men used to give great, deeply felt apologies, the kind samurais made with swords. That’s because there’s no simple “my bad” in an honor culture. If you were sorry for something, you could keep your honor, but you relinquished your power: no more running an army, no more complicated facial hair, just one wife. An apology was something taken so seriously that Fonzie—who lived in his own personal honor culture so intense he physically defended even his friends’ friends, some of whom were Ralph Malph—could only stammer the first phoneme of the word sorry. Countries still operate this way. It took decades for the United States to apologize to Native Americans and to interned Japanese Americans. We probably won’t apologize until 2050 for our 1970s decision to try the metric system.
But we now live in an honor-free culture, and in our softness, men have lowered the value of our freely given sorries, thereby greatly increasing the demand. The price of apologies drastically plummeted when the public apology became popular. Other than high treason, there is no offense for which a man should make a public apology. Apple CEO Tim Cook apologized so quickly for the Maps app fiasco in the new iPhone, all anyone could think was, That guy got beat up a lot as a kid. Justin Timberlake wrote a letter on his website apologizing for an offensive gag video about homeless people a friend of his had made for his wedding, even though it wasn’t actually shown at Timberlake’s wedding and he never saw it. After my wedding, all I did was write e-mail apologies to my friends for not inviting more slutty single chicks.
All this sorrifying has fed into people’s eagerness to play the role of morally superior scold, horrified that other people are not as pure as they are. This is why Tiger Woods stood at a podium and tearfully apologized to me when all he had done was entertain me with awesome sex stories. The only public apology I ever felt I actually deserved was from Anthony Weiner, since a man should always apologize for forcing another man to see his junk.
The word sorry has been devalued to bummer. Every time I tell a story in which something bad happens, someone interrupts with “Sorry.” When I tell you someone died decades ago and you reflexively say “Sorry,” what you’re really saying is “I’m the omnipotent, omnipresent being who makes decisions on life and death, and I may have blown the one about your grandpa.” In which case, you need to up your sorry to include some lightning, thunder and one of those Tupac-style holograms.
We have to cut down on the apologies and withstand the confrontation when we’re not really sorry for what we did. Otherwise we’re going to devalue the sorry to the point where it has no effect at all. And if there’s any group that does such horrible things it needs to retain the power of the sorry, it’s men. So let’s save it for genocide, forgetting birthdays and not clearing our browser before our girlfriend sees our history. It’s the only way we’ll get anything done.