Who’s Sorry?

Over the past ten days, I have had lots of exposure to airline companies of the United States.  As a person with a ticket to ride was being dragged off a United flight, I was trying to make it to Portland, where I would see old friends, give a talk, and meet colleagues whose work I admire.  I never made it to Portland.

On Wednesday, we were boarded onto the plane, only to sit on the runway for just under two hours and then be told that the flight was cancelled (no refunds for paid-for checked bags).  I was rebooked for the same flight the following day.  At 10:00 that night, however, I received a text telling me that the next day’s flight would also be cancelled and that I would receive notice of rebooking.  That notice never came, so I spent just over four hours on Thursday trying to get booked on a flight for Friday.  Once I had that flight, whew, I could rest easy, despite having had to juggle plans several times already.  When I arrived at the airport on Friday, the flight was delayed.  I would therefore miss the connecting flight and was told there was not one seat on any plane of any airline available to get me to Portland.

Who was sorry?  Every person I dealt with at ticket counters was a young, African-American woman.  To a person, they were knowledgeable, patient, and unfailingly polite.  They had to express to each new disappointed, frustrated, or angry customer that they were very sorry and were doing the best they could under the circumstances.  I started to think about how airlines operate.

We have all seen passengers lose their calm, become visibly agitated, raise their voices, and even threaten gate agents. The bigwigs (CEOs) are men (only 5% of all CEOs of all airlines in the world are women; none of these airlines are in the United States).  The pilots are usually men and usually white (see 2011 statistics from CNN here; this 2016 CBS piece reports that 6.5% of U.S. pilots are women).  The flight attendants and gate agents are usually women (in 2014, 75.8% of flight attendants in the United States were women; I haven’t yet found data on gate agents).  Men get to hide from the problems of the airlines, while their lesser-paid and more visible counterparts, predominantly women, are on the front lines.  When things go wrong—major weather systems, mechanical failures, absent flight crews–, passengers are often the last to know, and the visible front-line people are the first to have to apologize for natural occurrences and administrative mistakes that are not their fault.  In sum, the United States airline industry puts its men in the cockpit and its women in a “pink ghetto” (1983 term coined by Stallard, Ehrenreich, and Sklar and cited in this 2010 Washington Post article; historical background available here) of apology politics.

Last week Elle (even the beauty mags are getting more feminist in our current climate) featured an article by Sady Doyle titled “Women Don’t Need to Apologize Less—Men Need to Learn How to Apologize” (4-13-17).  In the article, Doyle cites research that confirms that women apologize more than men, but also expresses frustration that this is often erroneously attributed to women’s low levels of self-confidence.  She stresses that the research signals that “the disparity arises not from the fact that women are socialized to apologize ‘too often,’ but from the fact that men are not socialized to apologize at all.”  Doyle then underscores how problematic this is when a Sean Spicer needs to apologize for deeply misinformed and insanely insensitive comments about Hitler and chemical weapons and doesn’t know how to.  A life of privilege is a life of not having to say you’re sorry.  Doyle sums up Spicer’s “manpology” problem in this way:  “Sean Spicer has spent hours of his life flagrantly not apologizing for something he has clearly gotten wrong.”  The airline miscommunications I experienced ten days ago were the result of too many higher-ups exploiting too many lower-downs—their own employees and their customers.

This apology differential works in physical space as well.  You recall that I was desperately trying to get on a flight ten days ago.  When I did finally get on a flight (not to my original destination), I sat in the middle seat with men about twenty years younger on either side of me.  They were generally nice, and we shared mints and pleasantries.  Nevertheless, each assumed that the armrest was his, one constantly jabbed me in the side with his elbow, and the other rested his bare foot on my seat tray.  No apologies, no “excuse me’s,” no recognition that this shared space should be truly shared.  Meanwhile, two inches over, in the aisle, the flight attendants were moving heavy carts through tiny spaces, saying all the while, “Excuse me.  Sorry.  Watch your elbows.  Careful with your shoulders.  Please move your feet.  Excuse me.”

I offer one final example of the uneven apology culture.  A colleague of mine stated last year that she was told her e-mails were too long, “just like most women’s.”  She decided to limit her e-mails to three lines so that they would be edited for appropriate brevity and could be read more like the e-mails of male colleagues.  In a sense, her self-editing was an apology for an e-mail style she had obviously developed over decades.  I have always found this person’s e-mails to be clear, thorough, and polite, and, therefore, to not need much follow-up.  To me, this approach requires no apology.  In fact, it’s a solid way to get the job done.

Homework assignment:  Figure out how much “I’m sorry” has to do with civility impositions.

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