Love Means Saying You Are Woman Sorry

Yesterday, a British journalist asked me how the supporting technology was at Washington Post since Jeff Bezos bought it. I replied “Quite good” and his expression told me I had been misunderstood. So I said “I meant American quite good not British quite good”.

This reminded me of a common problem of the heterosexual couples I counselled back in the day. The wildly popular 1970 film Love Story taught Americans that “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” No wonder the divorce rate was so high in what Garry Trudeau called a kidney stone of a decade. Of course you sometimes have to say you are sorry to keep an intimate relationship going. But what do you mean when you say it?

For most of the men I saw in counseling, saying sorry meant that you had done something wrong and were apologizing. For most of the women, sorry more often meant “I feel you”. A common resulting scenario for misunderstanding would be that the husband would complain about, say, his awful boss and his wife would say “I’m sorry about that”, leading the man to reject this expression of sympathy with “Why? It’s not your fault.” Even more painfully, when the wife would describe her own troubles she might feel hurt that her husband didn’t express any sorrow. Meanwhile, he would be thinking “I feel bad for it, but it’s not my fault, so I’m not going to say I’m sorry”.

A way past this that seemed to help was to teach the couples the difference and help them become comfortable in emotional exchanges to refer to “woman sorry” and “man sorry”, e.g., “I’m not saying it’s your fault, I’m asking you to be woman sorry for me” and “I’m man sorry that I didn’t understand until this moment what you needed from me”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

6 thoughts on “Love Means Saying You Are Woman Sorry”

  1. My wife and I sometimes refer to the scene from “White Men Can’t Jump” in this context; she complains about something and I say “I empathize with your dry-mouthedness.” Looking at the scene now, I realize that’s not quite a direct quote, but the spirit is there:

  2. In French, the standard and very common phrase for expressing sympathy is “Je suis désolé(e)”. In German, “es tut mir Leid”. There is no admission or denial of blame, for which other phrases are used.

    Linguists are right to pour scorn on the strong Whorf hypothesis that the availability of words structures and limits what can be thought, and a fortiori felt. But in a weak form, the ready availability (or not) of stock phrases for sentiments is likely to have some effect on social interactions.

  3. Hey, hate to be dense here, but could you please elaborate on the difference between the American and British “quite good”.

    I am all too familiar with the distinction between the men’s and women’s “sorry”. I actually roll out the women’s version from time to time, with women, and they immediately spot me as a fraud.

    1. Sorry to be obscure. Over here (i.e., in Britain) people often say “quite good” to mean “rather disappointing” (more generally “quite” as a response in Britain, often taken by Americans to mean strong agreement, actually implies no agreement). In contrast, in the US, the land of exclamation marks, quite good means totally awesome!!!!

      1. And if my students are any indication, these days “awesome” means something like “satisfactory.”

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