Women apologize so much, so often. #SorryNotSorry may be a hashtag, but few of us practice what we tweet.
Constant apologizing affects not only how we feel about ourselves, but how others see us. Sure, there are times when apologies are totally appropriate—it can often be wise and humbling to say you’re sorry. Using that word when we need to can be great, and it can improve our confidence (and even professional performance).
But if you’re someone who throws out “sorrys” like candy from a parade float, that can be a problem. While on the surface this might seem like a polite habit, overusing any word can devalue it—and more importantly, excessive apologizing can make you look guilty when you haven’t done anything wrong.
There’s a time and place for the “S” word, and a little self-awareness is the first step to knowing when that is. Here’s my quick gauge for when I should really apologize:
Have you caused someone harm? Use it!
This could mean you said something intentional but rash to someone you love, and need to ask forgiveness. “Babe, when you didn’t hang your coat up, I totally snapped at you, and I’m sorry.”
Or because you’re human, sometimes you lose your cool with a stranger—like the poor person on the other end of an hour-long call to Verizon. (Not that I’m talking from personal experience… yeah, OK, I am. I really am sorry, Steve at Verizon.)
I also believe in saying sorry if you learn that something you said was unintentionally hurtful. Even if you were joking, if you later learn something you said was hurtful to someone else, it’s a good idea to apologize.
Was there a mutual miscommunication? Nope!
If you’re not at fault, then it’s time to acknowledge the situation, move on, and talk about what you can do, will do, or have already done to fix it, improve it, or move forward. No apologies needed.
For instance, if you need to get up during a flight and shuffle past people to get to the bathroom, phrases like “excuse me,” “please,” and “thank you,” are good enough. You don’t need to apologize for having to pee.
Start Hearing How Often You Apologize
Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter, says that it’s important to become aware of how often you say “I’m sorry.” To help her see how often she falls into this trap herself, Headlee installed an extension on Gmail that alerted her when she used that phrase—and says the results were eye-opening.
“You can’t make any changes until you’re aware of the extent of the problem,” she says. “After that, you should consciously only apologize for things you did that negatively impacted someone.”
Apologies Are Often Gendered in Our Personal Lives
Tina Lensing, a mindset and business coach for female entrepreneurs, recalls walking by a young girl, about age seven, who was working her way up a rock climbing wall. She looked down at her dad and said, “Sorry I’m taking so long. I just need to stop and take a rest.” Lensing immediately turned to her fiancé and said, “A little boy wouldn’t be taught to apologize like that.”
But women are conditioned from a young age to apologize constantly—for instance, no one should ever apologize for having an opinion or for not feeling a romantic connection, but women are often socialized to apologize for both.
“It’s a nice gesture to consider someone else’s feelings, but if a friendship or relationship isn’t working, then you don’t have to make excuses for yourself or that person. I suggest you pull out before it gets more emotional—or the idea of leaving becomes more challenging,” says Caleb Backe, a health and wellness Expert for Maple Holistics. “When a woman doesn’t like someone or simply isn’t interested in the relationship, she is entitled to set her own boundaries, and if they aren’t respected, she’s not the person who needs to apologize.”
… and in the Workplace
Maria-Vittoria Giugi Carminati, JD, LLM, a.k.a. “The Woman’s Lawyer,” has noticed a variety of issues that women apologize for—and men don’t. For instance, she says that men rarely, if ever, apologize for not being available and that women should do the same.
“My schedule is full, and that’s OK,” Carminati says. “If I’m not available, I focus on finding availability, not apologizing for the lack thereof.”
Women also often tend to apologize and make excuses for taking care of their kids, she observes. “Not only have I stopped apologizing for that, I have also stopped explaining that I need to be somewhere because I am a mother,” Carminati says. “If you pay attention to men’s interactions, they do not explain their absences or their need for re-scheduling. Ever since I told coworkers and superiors that I was simply unavailable, without elaborating, my caché has gone up. I appear very busy, which in the business world is a positive attribute.”
Women are also inclined to apologize for being late—even when they’re not. “I used to apologize for ‘tardy responses,’ when in fact, my callbacks and emails were not ‘tardy,’ they were simply more than an hour after I received the original message,” she says. “I started viewing myself as a professional, doing the best I could, and it radically changed the way I perceived my status and the way others treated me.”
In the workplace, it’s good to apologize if you’re late for a scheduled meeting or if you’ve done something that doesn’t align with your values. But there’s no need to apologize when you speak your mind, delegate tasks, or are performing more slowly than expected because you’re detail-oriented.
Even if women aren’t in the wrong, there’s a tendency to apologize, Carminati says. “Men interrupt twice as often as women, and they interrupt women twice as often as they interrupt men. Women, unfortunately, do the same to women. Yet we either go quiet or apologize when others interrupt us. That has to stop.” One good strategy? “Put up your hand and say, ‘I wasn’t finished,’ and keep going,” she says.
Try “Thank You” Instead
Misti Jackson-Derringer, director of holistic leadership at Radiant Coaches Academy, suggests that instead of apologizing, we use phrases like, “Thank you for understanding,” “Thank you for telling me how you feel,” or “I appreciate that, and…”.
If you’ve taken just a bit more time than you promised to do something, she says that “thank you for being patient with me” is a great alternative to an apology. When you offer gratitude, you’re making the other person feel appreciated—unlike saying sorry, which just means that the other person is in the position of having to forgive you.
Consider Your Motivation
All in all, if your intention is to please others or avoid disapproval, then it’s time to rethink why you’re apologizing. Watered-down apologies have little meaning to their recipient, but they can have lasting effects on your mental and emotional health, says Jackson-Derringer.
And when it comes to apologizing, Backe says you should never put someone else’s feelings ahead of your own—especially if they’re affecting you in a negative way.
Knowing the intention of our words is part of knowing ourselves. It plays a huge role in how we feel our own strength and how we’re perceived by others. As women, we can stay kind and hold firm to our beliefs—it’s possible to be polite and act in our own best interests. So the next time you need to reschedule a meeting or want to end your date before a kiss goodnight, pick the words you mean—you might be surprised by what they are.
Helaina Hovitz is an editor, writer, content strategist, and author of the memoir After 9/11. She is a native New Yorker, nonprofit enthusiast, rescue dog lover, and has eaten at approximately 500 million thousand restaurants. Follow her @helainahovitz on Twitter and Facebook.