Last year my boss (who is also a woman) ended a virtual meeting by saying, “This comment is for the ladies on this call. Stop. Apologizing.”

She said it because I’d apologized numerous times for the basic look of my PowerPoint slides. Another female colleague had apologized for explaining what they were there to explain in great detail. The third, because they thought the subjects they were bringing to the table – which incorporate her vast role – were boring. The men on the call didn’t apologize. Not once.

And this isn’t a slight against the men here. I mean good for them for not feeling the need to apologize for their boring subjects, business updates or basic IT skills. But it did make me think, do us women apologize too much and is it a problem?

Of course genuine apologies required from wrongdoing aren’t … well, wrong

But it’s those extra apologies. The ones that seem to come naturally and maybe don’t even need to be there at all that I wanted to write about today. Is over-apologizing a women only thing? Are our apologies stigmatised, harmful? Are we programmed differently to men, or is it a matter of generational traits handed down across the centuries? And do our apologies, especially in the workplace, even matter?

FACT: Women apologize more than men

I’m not making this up, it is actually a fact that women apologize more than men. A 2010 study found that us women apologize more because we have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour. So if you take my Zoom meeting example, myself and the other ladies present viewed simple slides, long explanations, and certain subjects, offense worthy items that required an immediate, “I’m sorry.” The men in the virtual room did not.

Sociologist Dr. Maja Jovanovic has discussed this very thing in her TEDx Talk. She says, “It’s not that men are avoiding apologies. It’s just than men have a really high, high threshold for what they deem to be apology-worthy behaviour. And women .. oh my goodness, women! We have a really low threshold. We’re always on the lookout for how we can squeeze in an apology.”

Why do us women apologize so much in the first place?

Dr. Tara Swart, a neuroscientist, says it could be linked to a childhood habit of apologizing to our parents for bad behaviour in fear of punishment. Dr. Jovanovic found that women have a higher fear of not being liked, and so apologize to ensure they don’t offend and lessen the love for them in the room. Sloane Crosley, a New York City author said in his article that women may even use their own apology as a prompt for an apology.

Is over-apologizing a gender trait or a matter of upbringing?

Interestingly Dr. Hinshaw, a clinical psychologist, states that from an early age boys are encouraged to express direct, confident behaviours and are praised when they do. Whereas girls are given a mixed message; display confidence but not arrogance, show intelligence but don’t be cocky with it, be assertive but be careful not to hurt others feelings. Girls and women are held accountable for how our behaviours affects those around us.

Which would suggest that women apologizing more frequently isn’t solely a gender attribute, it’s a matter of upbringing and societal expectations; That a woman should downplay her confidence and assertiveness in order to protect others. Whereas men are rewarded for their actions and aren’t expected to apologize for who they are and what they do.

I was a ‘bossy’ girl

Not passionate or committed, assertive, fearless or honest. Not any of these more positive synonyms. Just bossy. And that has such a negative connotation; It suggests that as a girl or woman, when we passionately assert ourselves it’s unwarranted, unwanted and leads to disrespect, and we need to apologize for it.

However my own levels of confidence and ‘bossiness’ have diminished with the years, and maybe it comes down to all this subtle social feedback; My assertiveness being viewed as difficult, shameful, negative, something I should apologize for rather than embrace. My own use of language has changed from a more confident, “I know …” to a less forceful, “I’m not sure but I think ….”. Apologizing, or downplaying my confidence has become automatic. And I didn’t even think about this much until I started to write this article.

Auto-function apologizing

Because when I think of how much I apologize in general life, not just in the workplace, I do it an awful lot nowadays. Someone bumps into me, I apologize to them. I don’t respond immediately to a text message from a friend because I’ve been busy, I’m sorry. My apologies are frequent and often unnecessary. There are so many situations where of course I’m apologizing for valid reasons, but there are a lot of circumstances where I am apologizing when there is entirely no need. It’s a programmed auto function. And now I’m aware of it, I can’t really be unaware of it.

So in the workplace, I took a look at how I handled myself across a week. I’m a goddamn stream of apologies! “Sorry this is going to sound silly but can I just say my opinion ..”. “This might not be relevant but sorry can I interject…”. “Sorry can I just share my ideas on this topic…”. “Apologies is this a good time to discuss something incredibly important that needs an immediate answer…”. “Sorry I know you’re busy and even though I’m also incredibly busy, I’ll apologize for interrupting your day… “. “Sorry for my simple slides, that aren’t simple at all”. I’d also shared my thoughts with some colleagues and they fed back the same – suddenly so aware of how many times they go into auto-apologize mode.

In the words of Dr. Maja Jovanovic, “apologies matter”.

So woman apologize more than men, it’s a fact. The way men and women view offensive behaviour deemed apology worthy isn’t necessary right or wrong, it’s just different. We’ve been brought up with different expectations and congratulated or shamed on similar behaviours based on gender. And personally, I’ve realised I apologize a lot (Hardly surprising given the data). And so the question remains, does it even matter and is it a problem if women apologize on the regular?

Apologizing may not seem like harmful behaviour because we aren’t physically hurting anyone, and in fact we’re being very polite; an apology just in case an apology is required. Good manners. The way we were told to do things, right? But apologies actually do diminish our presence, especially in the workplace.

Ways apologizing can be harmful

They are a marker of under-confidence, insecurities, self-doubt and even incompetence. So our standard niceties and over-zealous apologies can actually be creating a far less favourable image in the workplace than the one we might be going for. My simple, “Sorry this is going to sound silly but can I just say my opinion ..” I mean really, why would anyone listen to me after already stating that I think what I’m about to say is stupid. Why are they going to stay tuned in for something I don’t even have faith is worthy to disclose? I may as well forget the apology altogether and halt speaking entirely.

So whilst being able to be apologetic when needed is an important trait and shows compassion and humility, over-apologizing without a real need to do so, can in fact be harmful to our personal and professional development. It sounds like I should be saving my apologies for when I’ve actually done something hurtful or insulted someone, and not use them in situations where it just serves to undermine my confidence, credibility and resilience.  

“Apologizing when we have done something wrong is a real strength, but compulsive apologizing presents as a weakness at work and in personal relationships.”

Dr. Tara Swart, Neuroscientist

But it’s a double negative situation

According to psychologist Rachel Green from The Emotional Intelligence Institute. “Even now we will get penalised for speaking out or speaking up, and get called bossy, aggressive or a bitch, whereas a man would be called a leader.”

So the implications of not apologizing, being less empathetic, more confident and ‘aggressive’ as a woman, also bring with it a sense of negativity, and wrong doing in itself. By being more confident, secure and competent, or too reproachful is somehow in itself also a negative situation; We say sorry too much, we’re weak. We don’t say sorry enough, we’re not empathetic and considered boastful or bossy. Honestly, could this messaging be any more confusing? We’re shamed for asserting ourselves, and yet if we don’t, we’re liable to be seen as less.

I think for me, it comes down to which of these two scenarios are the worse for myself, and I’d rather live up to who I am, and not minimise myself due to social expectations as a woman, and boost my own confidence by having self-assurance in my abilities and actions. I’ll take people seeing me as boastful, bossy or a bitch, in favour of continuing to dull down who I am based on my gender.

How do we stop the over-apologizing?

If you’re feeling me, Dr. Jovanovic suggests that if we’re looking to limit the frequency of our apologies, we should monitor how often we apologize and then ditch the unnecessary. Practise an apology self-awareness course by replacing any undue “I’m sorry” scenarios with something less harmful, like:

  • “Excuse me, but I think …”.
  • “Thank you for waiting for me …”.
  • “I have an idea … “.
  • “Unfortunately I won’t be able to make that meeting …”.
  • “Excuse me, could you repeat that? …”.
  • “I’d like to expand on that …”.
  • “Thank you for listening … “.

She suggests that if we don’t, our apologies will slowly kill our own confidence, and may actually affect our career progressions. There is also an angle that over-apologizing leads to any apology then having no impact or meaning at all, as it’s used too regularly by a person to be seen as genuine.

The other way to stop this over-apologizing train in its tracks is to change how we treat girls heading into womanhood. There’s nothing wrong with good manners. However placing higher importance on a girl vs. a boy in being nice and compliant, feeds this whole double negative that women face later on in life. We can be polite and direct. Caring and assertive. Bossy and understanding. We can be direct and powerful and this isn’t something to be shamed. The messaging out there needs to change so we can be who we are, rather than face a dilemma of negative social connotations by being too much of one or the other.

I’m Not Sorry

I don’t know about you, but the messaging here is so confused. Because I’ve been brought up to be expected to be nice, polite and compliant. Whilst later on in life – specifically when it comes to my career – these things also result in a negative situation. But I’m also expected not to take my assertiveness too far; I must remember I’m a woman after all, I have a way to act and be!

Fuck that. I’m giving stopping over-apologizing a whirl. I’ve been trying it out this past week and I have to be honest, it’s such a natural thing I’ve done for so many years that it takes a moment to reframe it in my head before I speak. And it’s a realisation that I go into this, ‘I must apologize’ mode even when it isn’t actually something requiring an apology at all. It’s such an engrained habit that I can’t imagine it’ll be an easy fix to tone down the, “I’m sorry” auto vocab. Or ensure it’s only used when necessary and not for anything and everything, even those things that are out of my control. But here’s to the future me; #ImNotSorry

What are your thoughts on over-apologizing? Do women apologize more – and do you think its an issue? Hit me with your real talk in the comments below.

By Amy Roullier
By Amy Roullier

Amy is the Founder and Editor of The Authentic Optimist. She talks all things life. From the highs to the lows, to all those messy bits in-between. She is a writer, rambler, lover of carbs (her true soulmate) and she is especially passionate about dispelling myths about women in their 30s. Amy lives in Lincolnshire with her two greyhounds.

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