I was at Home Depot the other day when I caught myself on an apology-spree: “I’m sorry but can I ask you where you keep those drain-snaking things? I’m so sorry I can’t remember what they’re called.” “I’m so sorry for making you walk all the way across the store!”
It wasn’t even “I’m sorry” but “I’m so sorry.”
I apologized when I realized my cart was in the way of another customer, then again when I made a different customer move his cart out of the aisle because it was in my way, and then again as I leaned in to pull something off the shelf I needed, since I might be invading another customer’s personal space.
I began counting the number of times I apologized during that shopping trip, and from the time I realize what was happening, to the time I left the store, the number was eight. Eight apologies within about 30 minutes.
And before I go on pretending like my obnoxious over-apologizing had to do with me being at the Home Depot, I began to pay attention that week to how often I apologized in my everyday life—regardless of where I am.
- I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back to you
- I’m sorry for the late text
- I’m so sorry—am I in your way?
- I’m sorry, were you waiting to use this?
- I’m sorry, can you tell me what that means?
- I’m sorry I can’t quite hear you
- I’m sorry for making you rush (when the person I was meeting was late)
- I’m sorry to have to ask this…
- I’m sorry I didn’t catch that
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Even I got sick of hearing myself saying it.
Can you relate? Do you find yourself apologizing for things that don’t actually warrant an apology?
Do you wish you could stop?
Excuse me, I’m coming through!
The whole thing took me back to my very first job, where I worked as a hostess at Applebees. Big time, right? I can remember desperately wanting each of the servers I worked with to like me. And the way to get servers to like you, as a hostess, is make sure their section is always full with customers.
One day, while bussing and cleaning a table for one of the servers I worked with, we got caught in a traffic jam. She was coming up the ramp into her section, while I was walking down. I’m sorry I said to her as I moved out of her way so she could come through. She stopped dead in her tracks, looked me right in the eyes and said:
“No, not I’m sorry. You say excuse me, I’m coming through!”
I laughed nervously.
But honestly, at seventeen years old, the thought of saying, “excuse me, I’m coming through!” terrified me. Especially the thought of saying that to someone older than me, who I was trying to impress. There are a thousand reasons for that, a few of which I’ll discuss later in this article. But these days, the more I think about it, the more this response seems completely appropriate and even necessary to me.
It’s not so much about saying the words, but about the attitude behind them.
What would an, excuse me, I’m coming through! attitude look like in your life?
Why we apologize so much
According to a research study published by Psychological Science, there is a reason women spend significantly more time apologizing than men. It’s the same reason I found myself apologizing when I left my cart in the middle of the aisle at Home Depot, and then again when I made a male customer move his cart for me.
Research shows women apologize more than men because our threshold for what we think is offensive is generally lower.
Researchers analyzed the number of self-reported offenses and apologies made by 66 subjects over a 12-day period. And yes, they confirmed women consistently apologized more times than men did. But they also found that women report more offenses than men. So the issue is not female over-apology. Instead, there may be a gender difference in what is considered offensive in the first place.
In other words, while a woman might typically find it offensive to be “in the way” or to return an email “late,” a man more likely would not.
And although I appreciate what the research tells us, to be honest, I’m more interested in what the research doesn’t tell us. For example: why do women, as a general rule, have a lower threshold for what they think warrants an apology than men do?
Where does that come from?
Who taught this to us?
Should we be motivated to change it?
A few different answers.
You’ll find differing perspectives on this subject—which shouldn’t be surprising given the fact that anytime we talk about “men” and “women” we are making generalizations that do not always feel true or helpful to everyone. Still, when I first started reading on this subject, I have to admit I was a little shocked to find some women who don’t see women’s tendency to over-apologize as problematic.
Or, at the very least, they’re not interested in making immediate changes.
This article in Cosmopolitan, for example, pointed out how frustrating it can be for a woman who was raised in a culture which demanded she be polite and accommodating to then have that same culture hold her responsible for changing the way she speaks.
Telling women to treat certain words like they’re typos isn’t a way of empowering women — it’s a way of telling them to fix a problem that actually belongs to listeners who view women as weaker and less confident. “Asking women to modify their speech is just another way we are asked to internalize and compensate for sexist bias in the world,” Friedman wrote. “We can’t win by eliminating just from our emails and like from our conversations.”
This is a bit of a catch-22 isn’t it?
I get it. And yet, I have to say that, for me, this problem of over-apologizing isn’t nearly as much about “policing” the words that come out of my mouth as it is about questioning the attitude and approach I too often take for my life—the natural reflex I and other women have to apologize for our very existence. I am not 100% responsible for creating that attitude, but I am 100% responsible for shifting it or changing it.
If I don’t take responsibility for how I feel about myself as I move through the world, who will?
Does Language Matter?
One of the articles that came under a particular amount of heat was this one, by Ellen Leanse. This takes the conversation beyond apologizing and over-apologizing to the other language women use that ends up weakening our messages—words like “like” and in this case, “just”.
After noticing how often the women on her team at work were using the word “just,” they worked together to eradicate it.
Mostly because, it seems, she saw how the language these women were using wasn’t just about the words coming out of their mouth, but about issues like confidence, assertiveness, clarity and their impact and effectiveness in the workplace.
It was subtle, but small changes can spark big differences. I believe it helped strengthen our conviction, better reflecting the decisiveness, preparedness, and impact that reflected our brand.
Is it possible for the language we use to strengthen our conviction?
I think we can all agree how miserable it would be to have our language policed constantly, or to repeatedly second-guess every word that came out of our mouths. This would be a blow to a person’s confidence, rather than bolster for it. But what if we looked at the language we use not as something that needed to be policed, but something which could offer a great insight into our inner world?
Instead of policing ourselves, what if we just said: how interesting?
What we say reflects how we feel about ourselves—and even who we are.
Does it bother you?
Take a minute to watch this sketch by Amy Schumer—which highlights the exact dilemma I faced in Home Depot that day.
After watching the sketch, ask yourself: does this bother me?
I have to admit, that after watching this for myself, it’s clear it does bother me. In fact, thinking about not only about Home Depot, but also my little 17-year-old self apologizing for doing someone else a favor, and then about the smart, accomplished women in this skit apologizing for something as benign and unavoidable as having an allergy, I can’t get over how much this bothers me.
As Harriett Learner, PhD points out in her Psychology Today article on this subject, the fact that this bothers me is not without merit:
I’ve been investigating the subject of apologies for over a decade, and it’s clear that over-apologizing can be about many things. It may be a reflection of low self-esteem, a diminished sense of entitlement, an unconscious wish to avoid any possibility of criticism or disapproval before it even occurs, an excessive wish to placate and please, some underlying river of shame, or a desire to show off what a well-mannered Brownie Scout one is.
Did you catch that? Low self-esteem, a diminished sense of entitlement, avoiding criticism or responsibility… this sound dangerously like my own list of terrifying and obnoxious inner-obstacles and while it isn’t something I’m going to beat myself up over, it is something that will choose to be personally concerned with.
I’m not going to apologize for apologizing too much, but I am going to begin paying attention to how often I apologize, acquiesce, move over, stand down, and just generally accept the short end of the stick.
I am going to work on changing that.
Why any of this matters
For me, this isn’t about policing women, or their language. It’s about encouraging women—all people, really—to stop feeling like they need to apologize for things that are not their fault—to stop apologizing for their mere existence.
Saying sorry doesn’t necessarily equate to showing weakness. But… women, more than men, feel apologetic about sharing their ideas, or their space, or…everything, actually. …women apologize when they’re not in the wrong. Handing over your child to your partner because you have other things in your hand? Asking a question in a meeting? An apology doesn’t seem to fit. And yet, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard a “sorry” in precisely these places. It’s become so normal in our culture, we may not even recognize we’re doing it.
The language that comes out of our mouth is reflecting something. And when it seems to be reflecting such a low view of myself, I want to do something about it. Without policing myself or being too hard on myself for an attitude I did not come by on my own, I want to work to change the way I think and speak so that I can, eventually, also change the way I feel about myself.
What to say instead.
When we’re working to change the way we communicate, it can feel helpful to have something to say instead of the thing we are used to saying.
What can we say instead of I’m sorry?
I shared the example above from the friend I worked with at Applebees: what would it look like to say, “Excuse me!” instead of “I’m sorry”? What would it look like to have an, Excuse me I’m coming through! attitude in your life?
Another alternative was suggested to me a few months ago by an older woman in my life. Her suggestion works particularly well when you are asking for some kind of accommodation or favor, or when you’re declining an invitation to something. She suggested instead of saying, “I’m sorry” you say, “I’m sure you understand”.
I’ve been doing this all the time lately and it’s fantastic.
- I can’t make it tonight. I’m sure you understand.
- I would love to help but my schedule is too full. I’m sure you understand.
- I haven’t been able to get to my email. I’m sure you understand.
- Would you be able to meet earlier? I’m sure you understand.
- I’m allergic to gluten—I’m sure you understand.
It’s fantastic. It’s liberating to back off from my usual over-apologizing.
Finally, a third option came to mind as I was talking with a friend the other day. She pointed out that often when we say “I’m sorry” what we really mean is thank you. Isn’t that interesting? This reminded me of my trip to Home Depot. When I apologized for making the man walk “all the way” across the store with me, what I really meant was THANK YOU so much for making sure I got what I needed.
Not I’m sorry. But thank you.
- Thank you for being so flexible
- Thank you for understanding
- Thank you for accommodating my request
- Thank you for refilling my soda
- Thank you for taking the time to talk with me
Women have an incredible amount of value and beauty to bring to the world and too many of us are holding back because we’re afraid of stepping on toes or being offensive. The truth is we could stand to be a little more “offensive” sometimes, a little more bold with our words and brave with our energy.
I hope you find this shift as helpful as I have.
- Amy Schumer’s “I’m Sorry” comedy sketch
- The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman
- When I’m Sorry is Too Much, Psychology Today
- Don’t Be Sorry Pantene Ad
- Why Women Apologize, And Should Stop, New York Times
- Why Over-Apologizing Is A Bad Thing