The compulsive urge to apologize is ingrained in many women. "Sorry, do you just have a minute to talk?" "Sorry I'm late!" "I'm sorry, I'm trying to find my notes." "Ugh, I'm sorry my hair looks so bad today." Sound familiar?
Apologizing isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but over-apologizing for every little thing can have a negative impact on your career and your relationships. It reduces your confidence, makes you seem uncertain, and reduces your abilities in the eyes of others. How can you overcome the uncalled-for sorrys?
When should you actually apologize?
First, let's be clear about when you should apologize. There are definitely times when an apology is warranted, so I’m not suggesting that women stop apologizing entirely. The definition of apology is, “a regretful acknowledgement of an offense or failure.” When you have made an error or caused hurt to another person, you should give a sincere apology.
Note the key word in the last sentence - sincere. Apologizing too often over trivial matters makes your apologies seem less sincere because you apologize for everything. A good apology includes taking ownership of the mistake (no excuses!) and letting the person know steps you are taking to prevent it from happening again.
Giving a genuine apology can build your credibility with the people involved. It makes you human and empathetic. A bad apology can negatively impact your reputation. Just take a look at any number of influencers, YouTubers, or politicians for examples for bad apologies that their reputations never recovered from. Let your sorry be intentional and meaningful.
Why do women apologize so much unnecessarily?
Why is excessive apologizing a problem for so many women and not for men? There are a few reasons why this may be the case.
Women have a lower threshold for what causes offense - A study done by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada not only proved that women do apologize more often than men, but also went on to discover at least one reason why. Women reported that they committed more “offenses” during their day than men, and women also reported that they offered more apologies. Another part of the study asked participants to evaluate the seriousness of various offenses and women rated these offenses higher than men did.
For example, a woman may come into a meeting late and apologize for being late because she perceives this to be an offense worthy of apology. Meanwhile, a man may come into a meeting late and say nothing because he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong.
It's not necessarily a matter of one side being right or wrong, but rather a matter of perspective. Men and women simply have different scales for judging what's worthy of apology.
It’s a habit - For many of us, apologizing becomes a habit - a filler word used in the same way as “so,” “um,” or “like.” When you start a sentence or pause to think of your next words, you fill the gap with a “sorry.” But using it as filler makes a true apology seem less sincere and makes us seem unsure of ourselves.
The habit may come from a need to please people and avoid conflict or excessive politeness. However the habit forms, it causes us to unfairly dump guilt and blame on ourselves for things that aren't worth feeling guilty over. All that blame erodes our confidence and self-esteem.
The way women are raised - Whether purposely or not, women are often raised to be quiet, obedient, and to care for the feelings of others. Meanwhile, “boys will be boys” - loud, confident, and often indifferent to how their actions impact others.
Women internalize these behaviors from a young age based on what they are taught and the behavior they see in the people around them and the media. Therefore, as adults, we apologize more and are more sensitive to real or perceived slights against others.
Things you shouldn’t apologize for
What are some of the things you have no need to apologize for? Here are a few examples:
Saying no / Choosing your priorities
Following your dreams
Taking “me” time
Standing your ground
Asking your worth
Following your truth / Being yourself
A delayed response
Things out of your control
Eating or drinking what you want
What you wear
Changing your mind
How to stop over-apologizing
Practice self-awareness - Have you ever counted how many times you apologize in a day? You’ll probably be surprised how often you do it when you take the time to keep count. Create a log and keep track for a week.
Are there any situations where you find yourself apologizing more often? Or maybe around certain people? If you know when and where you’re most likely to apologize needlessly, you can be more conscious of trying to avoid those unnecessary apologies.
Change your vocabulary - Instead of saying sorry, try rephrasing what you say. "Thank you" is often a better substitute. Here are a few examples of how to replace your sorry.
Sorry, could you send me that report? -> Could you please send me that report?
Sorry, I won’t be able to make it that day. -> Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it that day.
Sorry, could your repeat that? -> Excuse me, could you repeat that?
Sorry I was late. -> Thank you for waiting for me.
Sorry, can I sit here? -> Is this seat taken?
Sorry, I just have one more question. -> I have another question.
Sorry that I’m complaining. -> Thanks for listening.
Be confident & intentional - Another part of changing your vocabulary is to stop using minimizing language. These are many ways of saying sorry without actually using the word sorry. Examples are “just,” “only,” “little,” ,"I think," etc.
If you say, “I just have a little question,” it comes across as if you are apologizing for needing to ask the question. You’re minimizing yourself. Your voice deserves to be heard and there is no need to apologize for having a question or making a point.
You sound much more confident and certain of what you’re saying when you eliminate these minimizing words. One of our favorite books here at JennQuest, How Women Rise by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith has a whole chapter called "Minimizing" that I find to be one of the most impactful in the book. I highly recommend you read it to open your eyes to how women minimize their words and themselves.
Believe in your self-worth - One way to help you be more confident in your words is believing in your self-worth. You have value and your words and ideas matter. When you’re feeling unsure or like you have made a mistake, go back and remember your strengths. Look back at your successes and see that you have already come so far!
Prepare for meetings/presentations - Another way to help ensure you speak confidently and avoid saying sorry is to be well-prepared for meetings and presentations. When you get surprised by a topic or question, it’s easy to start saying sorry.
When you know the subject well and have practiced a presentation, you’ll feel confident in your words with no need to minimize or apologize.
For many women, over-apologizing is a hard habit to break. Don’t let this habit hold you back from moving up the ladder. These tips will help you shake the extra sorrys and be the bold and confident woman I know you can be!