A few years ago, a sketch on “Inside Amy Schumer” so aptly depicted a propensity for errant and extraneous apologies among women, it sparked an ongoing conversation that asked why and begged to change the narrative.
Not naming gender (but including a female anecdote), a male writer for Tonic asked whether the compulsion to apologize is less about remorse and more a sign of anxiety. Meanwhile, female writer Sloane Crosley penned an op-ed about women and their tendency to apologize for the New York Times that takes a totally different tone, saying “sorry” can also serve as “a poor translation for a string of expletives.”
“It’s a Trojan horse for genuine annoyance, a tactic left over from centuries of having to couch basic demands in palatable packages in order to get what we want,” writes Crosley. “All that exhausting maneuvering is the etiquette equivalent of a vestigial tail.”
Is the need to over-apologize really more a female thing? And regardless of who does it more, why are we doing it?
Maja Jovanovic, Ph.D., sociology professor at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada and author of “Hey Ladies, Stop Apologizing and Other Career Mistakes Women Make,” says women do, in fact, have a tendency to apologize more and do it for different reasons than men.
“We know intuitively that women apologize more than men, but now we actually have the research to back it up,” says Jovanovic, referring to a University of Waterloo, Canada study that found that women likely tend to apologize more often because they have a lower threshold than men for what they consider offensive. “If men deem an infraction egregious enough, they apologize. The problem is they find very few infractions deserving of an apology, and women are apologizing for just about everything,” she says. This seems to fall in line with Crosley’s line of thinking.
Like Crosley, Jovanovic attributes a woman’s tendency to apologize to being “socialized into a passive mindset” and “people pleasing behavior” from an early age. “Apologies have become our de-facto way of communicating, a way of filling the silence and keeping the peace when interacting with others,” she says.
She also attributes a fear (the driver of anxiety, mind you) of not being liked and being seen as offensive, to excessive apologies. “We preempt what we think people are thinking about us with an apology as if to say, ‘I already know what you’re thinking … and I’m sorry,’” she explains.
Apologizing when we have done something wrong is a real strength, but compulsive apologizing presents as a weakness at work and in personal relationships.
Without assigning gender, Tara Swart, neuroscientist, medical doctor, leadership coach and author of the upcoming book “The Source: Change your mind, change your life” says serial apologists mostly do so out of habit, possibly stemming from a childhood where one was made to feel wrong or fearful of punishment (and thus, perhaps anxious). “It may be that the normal human need to belong has been compromised, creating a shame response that’s meant to induce forgiveness and reacceptance,” she explains. “Apologizing when we have done something wrong is a real strength, but compulsive apologizing presents as a weakness at work and in personal relationships,” Swart says.
What’s more, if you’re apologizing for fear of socially rejecting someone, your words might fall on deaf ears anyway. After examining three sets of studies, researchers from Dartmouth College and University of Texas, Austin found “apologies increased hurt feelings and the need to express forgiveness but did not increase feelings of forgiveness.”
In this vein, Swart says both giving and receiving apologies can sometimes elicit what she describes as “survival emotions,” such as fear, anger, disgust, shame or sadness, which pump the stress hormone cortisol into our brains.
Flip the script
From a neuroscientific perspective, Swart says curbing the constant need to apologize requires the same strategy as kicking any other habit, and thus “building a strong new pathway in the brain” through:
- An awareness that you want to change
- Attention to each time you apologize excessively
- Accountability — have a friend or partner alert you each time you do it
- Mindfully swapping out apologies for other phrases
Instead of reverting to apologies, Jovanovic offers these options:
Instead of saying “I’m sorry,” say:
- “excuse me.”
- “pardon me”
- “go ahead”
- “after you”
- “your turn”
Instead of saying “sorry to interrupt you,” say:
- “ I’d like to add…”
- “I have an idea….”
- “I’d like to expand on that…”
Instead of saying “sorry to complain,” switch it to:
- “Thank you for listening…”
Instead of apologizing in an email, consider saying:
- “Thank you for catching that….”
- “I appreciate you bringing this error to my attention….”
- “Thanks for flagging this issue for me…”
If you’re running a little late, instead of saying sorry, consider:
- “Thank you for waiting for me…”
Whatever your reason for developing this habit, like with any habit, you can nip it in the bud with a little effort. There’s even a plug-in for that; Jovanovic recommends a Google Chrome plug-in called “Just Not Sorry” to alert you to words that undermine your message in emails.
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