The word “sorry” is the biggest little word in the world.

Last week, my boyfriend leaned in to kiss my cheekbone, misjudged his angle of approach and my eyelashes poked him straight in the eye. I immediately apologized and he laughed saying, “Why are you saying you’re sorry?”

Since then, I have noticed how often I — and my female friends — apologize for things that are out of our control. This, of course, is different than saying, “I am sorry for being late,” or “I’m sorry I picked a fight last night because I was really hungry and you were taking forever to figure out our plans.”

Last year, TIME magazine columnist Jessica Bennett wrote an article called “I’m Sorry, but Women Really Need to Stop Apologizing” and talked about exactly this.

Why do women apologize so much? She argues that sorry is a crutch — “a tyrannical lady-crutch. It’s a space filler, a hedge, a way to politely ask for something without offending, to appear ‘soft’ while making a demand,” she said.

I say there are three different categories of “I’m sorry.”

1. I’m Sorry I Hurt You. There are times when we are actually sorry or want to apologize for something we did. I’m sorry I hurt you. Without this societal custom, we would all walk around with resentment, sadness and possibly loaded shotguns. Saying I’m sorry when it’s necessary is the quickest way to fix hurt feelings.

2. I’m Sorry You’re Hurting. But how about all the times women say sorry for situations that have nothing to do with them? I am sorry you broke your collarbone. I am sorry you got fired. In other words, I am sorry a bad thing has happened to you. This can be circumstantial or emotional. I am sorry your father has cancer.

Saying sorry can be an abbreviation; a shortcut to emotional acknowledgment. It can replace longer sentiments that we either don’t have time to get into or aren’t always comfortable expressing — like I’m sorry you’re in pain. I’m sorry you’re unhappy. I’m sorry things aren’t going the way you wish they were right now. I can’t fix it.

This is the mother complex. Many women, whether they’ve produced children yet or not, possess that innate knee-jerk response to comfort others through acknowledgment. To tell whomever is unhappy that his or her feelings are being heard.

Is this instinct more powerful in women than in men? Are women generally more empathetic? Research shows that this may be the case.

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