I believe we all—regardless of gender or other identity—apologize more than necessary sometimes, while also arguably not always saying sorry soon enough when an apology truly IS called for. I highly encourage all people to re-evaluate whether they are truly sorry before apologizing, and to take into consideration what’s brought up below in their own lives. That said, this article discusses girls and women specifically because they, as a whole, apologize more often than boys and men do, and because that goes a lot deeper than the surface.
Here’s a challenge: make a quick note on your phone every time you apologize for something this week, as well as what you apologized for. At the end of the week, look back on both the number of times you apologized and the reason why you did so.
When I started forcing myself to be more aware of my “sorry's", I was immediately taken aback by how often I apologize for menial—blatantly unnecessary—things. The same went for when I observed the apologies of women around me, and you could likely have similar results.
You might be wondering why it matters if you apologize a little too much —does it really matter? Yes, it actually does. Not only can it impact your credibility since you are downplaying yourself, as I'll soon discuss, but more importantly, it makes you feel smaller in your own mind.
The issue is that most current uses of the word “sorry” aren’t to express true remorse or to ask for forgiveness. Jessica Bennett says it best when she writes that “sorry” has become a crutch:
“It’s a space filler, a hedge, a way to politely ask for something without offending, to appear ‘soft’ while making a demand.”
Even after forcing myself to be more consciously aware of when and why I am apologizing, I still slip sometimes. For example, I just texted someone apologizing for asking a question twice after not getting a follow-up when I initially asked. As another example, an older, assigned peer mentor of mine was giving me a suggestion and ended it by saying “I’m so sorry for such a long message!!!” But why? I was extremely appreciative of the fact that she took so much time to help me, and she obviously had no reason to be sorry for doing her job (and in fact, going above and beyond in doing so).
If that sounds ridiculous to you, I guarantee that you can find similar instances either in your own life or with the people around you if you take a look—it’s not as ridiculous nor nearly as rare as it may sound.
Don’t just take it from personal examples, though—there is also considerable research to support the idea that girls and women apologize more often. Some, such as gender linguist Deborah Tannen, say it’s because men are just more attuned to the notion that apologizing can symbolize being “lesser-than” (although, of course, in the case of more legitimate apologies, saying sorry can actually mean being the bigger person), and are thus less willing to say sorry.
Others, such as the researchers involved in the 2010 study conducted by the University of Waterloo’s and published in the journal Psychological Science, say it’s not because men are less willing to apologize, but simply because they have a higher threshold for what deserves an apology. In other words, the research argues that women think more things deserve an apology than men do.
Either way, it’s not entirely the fault of my aforementioned mentor, me, or any other girl or woman that we apologize so much—throughout much of history, girls and women have been expected to be likable, accommodating, and submissive. Women often “have to be likable to get ahead...apologizing is one way to make yourself more accessible and less threatening,” as Rachel Simmons, author of "The Curse of the Good Girl," says. People like to feel better or more powerful than others, and by apologizing, you are sliding yourself into their comfortable, happy zone by making yourself smaller.
While that may make things easier and more comfortable in the short term, it’s not worth it in the long term to constantly belittle yourself by throwing around your “casual” apologies. Trust me, you’ll likely feel bigger, more valid, and more confident if you work on reducing your apologies.
There are many ways to control your “sorry”’s, which means that you can figure out what works for you.
Pantene created an ad in 2014 addressing the silly and unnecessary reasons we often say sorry, from opening a colleague’s door to having an elbow knocked off an armrest by a man when he sits down. The latter should be a pretty clear example of an extraneous apology, since it wasn’t the woman’s fault to begin with. For instances like that, reducing your “sorry”’s can be as simple as taking a second to consciously define whether it was actually even your fault.
"...it’s problematic and inherently self-belittling to instinctively assume that your existence, needs, or time are a bother to others."
As for opening a colleague’s door, that’s more of a “sorry for bothering you” type of apology, but that doesn’t make it any less unnecessary. In fact, those might be some of the most detrimental types of apologies; it’s problematic and inherently self-belittling to instinctively assume that your existence, needs, or time are a bother to others. And the more you make yourself sound like a burden to others, the more likely they are to suddenly start viewing you as such. Sure, if you interrupt a very critical meeting by accident, that might be deserving of a quick sorry, but apologizing for coming into a colleague’s office under normal circumstances does not at all warrant remorse. After all, whatever you are approaching the colleague about will probably help her or him in some way, too.
Along those lines, another way of decreasing your apologies could just mean pausing and reconsidering whether you are apologizing to be overly polite, or because you’re actually remorseful. Further examples of that include apologizing for responding to a text or email with a slight—not overly unreasonable—delay. You shouldn’t be remorseful for having other things going on or being busy, so why should you apologize for not responding to a message the second you receive it?
In other cases, it might be easier to turn your “sorry”’s into “thank you”’s, as this cartoon by Yao Xiao perfectly demonstrates:
At the same time, however, be slightly wary of over-thanking in place of over-apologizing, because in certain situations when the person is just doing something basic or expected, those “thank you”’s could have the same impact as a “sorry.” In general or for the examples depicted above, however, this can be an easy way to decrease your habit of apologizing in a more constructive way that simultaneously shows your appreciation for the people around you.
You can also enlist your friends and decrease your “sorry”’s together. I have a group chat with two of my best friends, and every time one of us says “sorry” for something silly or unnecessary, we have a certain word that we say to remind whoever said it that they didn’t need to apologize for that. This is particularly important when apologizing for something you’re feeling or thinking about—your feelings and thoughts are valid, and do not need to be apologized for.
Whatever method you might choose, the bottom line is just catching yourself before “the crutch” slips out, and re-determining whether that is actually what you mean to say.
Now, obviously, there are times when apologies are very necessary. Apologies like “sorry that this happened to you” or “sorry for your loss,” are of course important for establishing and extending sympathy. In those cases, it doesn’t matter that you may not have had anything to do with the situation, because the purpose of this apology is different than the ones discussed above.
Similarly, when you actually have done something wrong or worth your regret or remorse, you should certainly apologize. That goes for both situations that are small, like stepping on the paw of your dog, although this otherwise fantastic article cites that as silly, and large, like getting in a fight with someone you care about. Unfortunately, these larger situations that actually do deserve an apology are the ones where we all—as in humans, not just girls and women—often fail to say sorry soon or sincerely enough. This also tends to be the time when it's harder to say sorry, and requires being the bigger person to step up and apologize first.
My personal goal is to be much more selective with my “casual” apologies, and a lot more liberal with my true apologies.
I’d also like to note that I do not think policing women's language, actions, or choices is the way to go in dealing with and sustainably reforming patriarchal systems. That being said, decreasing how often we apologize isn’t about other people’s responses to us at its core, but rather about no longer making ourselves smaller even in our own conscious, or subconscious, eyes. We need to teach ourselves and the generations of girls to come to never be apologetic for taking up space with their voices and existences—for our own sakes.As author Melissa Atkins Wardy says, apologizing is to say sorry for taking up space with your voice, and “taking up space with your voice is like claiming your spot at the table. It is speaking your mind and not apologizing for it, nor asking permission to have your own opinion."