Female candidates asked for forgiveness. Men, not so much

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a Democratic presidential primary debate Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

In the final question of Thursday's Democratic presidential debate, the seven candidates were asked whether they would rather give a gift to someone on the stage. Or, they could ask for forgiveness.

Their responses were the stuff of linguistics and gender studies.

The men — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg and Tom Steyer — opted to give a gift. None remarked on how forcefully they tried to make a point, nor did they acknowledge their anger or passion about the issues during the two-and-a-half hour debate to become the Democratic presidential nominee.

But the two women, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, asked for forgiveness. Each apologized for, well, debating.

"I know that sometimes, um, I get really worked up, and sometimes I get a little hot. I don't really mean to," Warren said.

Said Klobuchar: “I would ask for forgiveness any time any of you get mad at me. I can be blunt.”

Gender and linguists experts weren't surprised by their choices.

“These women are brilliant and accomplished, and they deserve to be on that stage, and yet, they still feel the need to back off because they fear they have maybe been too direct, too blunt, too passionate,” said Sally Helgesen, an author, speaker and women’s leadership coach.

There's still a double standard between when it comes to communication and gender. Men are expected to be forceful, passionate and bold. Women who choose to communicate in a similar fashion are criticized for being strident, shrill or worse.

And yet, by asking for forgiveness — essentially apologizing for arguing their points forcefully — the women candidates could be seen by some voters as weak or backing down. It's a predicament, linguist Deborah Tannen said — and their answers address one of the liabilities of being a female candidate.

“Strident is a word attached to women, but never attached to men,” she said, pointing out Klobuchar's statement about others getting “mad” at her. “Can you imagine any of those guys saying that?”

Professor Karina Schumann of the University of Pittsburgh, who did her doctoral thesis on why women apologize more often than me, said many women are more sensitive to harming others. They're socially attuned, and want to make sure conversations run smoothly.

In a debate setting, “to apologize for that kind of behavior is really interesting. It served to maintain the image of them being feminine, it's conforming to those types of gender roles expected of women.”

All three experts pointed out that Secretary of State and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was criticized and mocked during her campaign for not being feminine enough.

“Women tend to get socially punished for not being warm,” said Schumann.

It was also telling, Schumann said, for the men in Thursday's debate to all choose gift giving.

“Giving a gift is a warm, pro-social behavior. You're a benefactor, helping someone. You’re in a more powerful role,” she said. “The benefit of the perceptions of their warmth doesn’t come at any cost to perceptions of competence.”

Tannen did say that there was one way Klobuchar and Warren were exactly like the men onstage.

“They went on to say how great they were," she said.

But the two women couched it in an apology, attributing an asking of forgiveness to: “I care so much about what’s happening.”

“In a way they’re saying, what you see me doing is not feminine, but there's an underlying concern. Because I care so much. I'm still a good woman."