A while back, I started keeping track of how often I actually apologize in my daily life. It was brought to my attention by a friend after spending some time with her at the mall.
”You always apologize” she said.
I wanted to get defensive and tell her that it really wasn’t that bad – until I realized I really do apologize a lot. In just two days, I apologized for the following things:
- I’m sorry for being in your way
- I’m sorry for getting back to you so late
- I’m sorry for having to ask this
- (In a meeting) I’m sorry, before we move on..
- (On the phone) I’m sorry, before you hang up..
And once I even said ”I’m sorry for apologizing so much” which took the freaking cake.
Can you relate? Do you wish you could stop? I certainly did. I did a little research to help understand this habit better, and then experimented with my way of speaking a bit, and I think I found a good solution!
Women apologize more than men
If you think you hear women apologize more often than men, you’re completely right.
“Men aren’t actively resisting apologizing because they think it will make them appear weak or because they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions,” said study researcher Karina Schumann, a student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.
“It seems to be that when they think they’ve done something wrong they do apologize just as frequently as when women think they’ve done something wrong. It’s just that they think they’ve done fewer things wrong.”
The threshold for what women think is offensive is lower in general, which is why we apologize a lot more. We tend to think we’re a lot more offensive than we actually are, even if the person we’re communicating with isn’t even offended in the first place.
I know from personal experience that saying sorry is something I do out of habit, ‘just in case’ someone is offended: I’d rather say sorry then to be seen as unmotivated or lazy. But what this research doesn’t tell us is why women are so much more apologetic than men.
Why do women have a lower threshold for what is considered offensive?
Here, it’s important to note that whenever we talk about ”men” and ”women”, we’re overgeneralizing, and that your personal experience might be different.
However, I was surprised that when I started diving deeper into this subject, I stumbled upon some women who don’t see the tendency to over-apologize as problematic in any way.
This op-ed from the Washington Post points out that people need to stop picking apart how we communicate.
”But for the sake of argument, let’s say women do use “sorry” and “just” more than men. (These words certainly are perceived to be more associated with women.) If this is the case, I’d argue that they are doing so not because they are carelessly conforming to gendered expectations to the detriment of their careers, but because they’ve learned through trial and error that using speech this way is ultimately more effective.” – Jessica Grose, The Washington Post
This is an interesting point of view and I understand where it comes from. Women fear of being seen as weak when speaking in a ‘feminine’ way but they also fear of being seen as ‘dominating’ or even ‘crazy’ when speaking in a more masculine way.
If women speak in the styles that are effective when used by men in the same setting — being assertive and sounding sure of themselves — they run the risk that they do not fit their culture’s (gender) expectations for appropriate behavior.
In short: no one will like you.
But is conforming to those gendered expectations the solution? For me personally, it isn’t.
Does language really matter?
If using this type of language doesn’t personally bother you (and if it isn’t affecting your professional relationships) then you shouldn’t change it. But if it does bother you – and it certainly bothers me – then trying to change the way you speak can make a big difference in your life.
In the end, the way I perceive myself will have an impact on the way others will perceive me. Over-apologizing can be a reflection of low self-esteem, diminished sense of entitlement or the wish to avoid criticism and disapproval. That’s not how I want to be perceived.
But what to do about it?
So you want to change the way you communicate. It’s helpful to think about how you want to perceived instead and what to say instead of ‘I’m sorry’.
Recently, I saw a sign in my co-workers office that really struck me. It recommended to replace ”I’m sorry” with thank you” in as many circumstances as possible. I like that, approaching the world with gratitude instead of guilt.
For example, instead of saying ”sorry, could you repeat that?”, you would say ”Can you repeat that? Thank you”.
And instead of saying ”Sorry I’m such a mess” you can say something along the lines of ”Thank you for always being there for me”.
Another suggestion was made by an older co-worker of mine, who has been dealing with lots of different (shitty) people for over thirty years. Her tip was to replace ”I’m sorry” with ”I’m sure you understand”.
- I haven’t been able to get back to you. I’m sure you understand
- I would love to go but my schedule is full. I’m sure you understand
- I’m allergic to wheat. I’m sure you understand
It’s very liberating to back off from my usual over-apologizing. Since I’ve made this shift, I have noticed that I’m being perceived different by myself, but also by others. Although I’m not completely sure this is directly caused by getting rid of this habit of saying ‘I’m sorry’ so often, I’m sure it’s at least partly caused by the way I carry myself and how confident I am.
Too often, women are scared to be offensive or to step on someone’s toes – and because of that we hold ourselves back. But you know, I think we could stand to be a little more offensive at times. Don’t be afraid to be bold just because someone else might perceive you as bitchy.