On a recent morning, I was at a coffee shop and was handing the barista $10 when I barely brushed his wrist. “I’m sorry!” immediately came out of my mouth. My 9-year-old daughter looked up at me with a no-nonsense look and said, “Mom, what do you have to be sorry about?!”
She was right.
But if you’re a woman, perhaps you can relate to my reaction.
You may automatically find yourself saying “I’m sorry” often – if you can’t make it to a meeting, if you can’t accommodate a last-minute request, even if you’re taking a “little too long” to decide on your order at a restaurant.
So what gives? Why does the need to apologize feel like such a default for so many of us?
The root of the answer may very well lie in stereotypes. Many studies have shown that women’s behaviors are often typecast - for example, women are expected to be communal and nurturing, and to avoid being dominant. Not surprisingly, researchers found that when women act out of alignment with those expected behaviors, they are seen less positively by others. These stereotypes often go unspoken and unchecked. And the truth is, we take plenty of cues about them and what’s expected from us, starting at a very young age.
Part of the apology habit may have to do with differences in what constitutes an “offense” in the first place. One comparative study, in Psychological Science, found that while both men and women apologized in equal proportion for what they considered to be offensive behavior, women actually reported committing more offenses than men. This finding suggests that men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.
No matter the reason, the problem with over-apologizing is that it can lessen other’s respect for you. Of course, a heartfelt apology is meaningful and necessary at times, but a constant stream of saying sorry is not.
The other issue is that overdoing it with apologies can be self-reinforcing. When we say it enough, it can become a little too believable that in fact we are in other people’s way, that we’re a bother or that we shouldn’t be taking up their time. Another problematic feature of chronic apologizing is that in some cases, it can be fueled more by our own high standards of interactions than the standards of those around us!
In honor of stopping the apologizing madness in my own life, here are five phrases I’m going to purposely retire in 2022 — and some replacements I'll use instead. I hope you'll join me!
Instead of: “I just wanted to share…”
Try: “I want to share…”
The logic: So often, we say “just” to soften up a direct, assertive message. The problem is, it demeans whatever we have to say with it.
Instead of: “I may be wrong, but…"
“Try: “Here’s what I know today…”
The logic: We could all be wrong, at any time, about anything. That doesn’t mean we need to lead with it – it’s better to focus on what you do know.
Instead of: “Sorry to bother you…”
Try: “When you have a moment, I’d like X.”
The logic: You’re not a bother for interacting with colleagues – collaboration is how we accomplish so many things today. Even if you are bothering someone, trust that they’ll let you know a better time or when they can get to your request.
Instead of: “Does that make sense?”
Try: “What are your thoughts/reactions?”
The logic: Rest assured, you do make sense. If people have a question, they’ll let you know. What you can’t know are others’ thoughts and reactions, so ask about that.
Instead of: “I hope that’s OK…”
Try: “Thanks for considering it.”
The logic: You can be consultative without asking other people for permission. Instead of transferring approval to them, ask them to consider your request and thank them.
The less I over-apologize, the better I feel. It’s liberating to shake off the feeling that you’re constantly stepping on someone’s toes. Or that your need for information is inconveniencing people. Put another way, #SorryNotSorry.
Selena Rezvani is a women’s leadership speaker and author of the award-winning book, "Pushback: How Smart Women Ask – And Stand Up – For What They Want." Through in-person training and online courses via LinkedIn Learning, Selena teaches professionals how to be fierce self-advocates and carve out leadership paths on their own terms. Follow her on TikTok, Instagram and LinkedIn.