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Why Women Apologize Too Much and What to Do About It

Lifestyle |

I have a problem: I apologize all the time. I apologize when waiters screw up my order, I apologize when I trip and hurt myself, I apologize when someone else’s dog yaps at my dog—my God, I’ve even brought my dog into this sick situation!

I don’t know when it started. I was definitely one of those kids who didn’t like to get in trouble growing up and probably thought saying “I’m sorry” would get me out of bad situations, but this has gotten excessive.

But according to a new study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, I’m not the only one with this problem. A very blatant gender gap emerges when measuring just how often men and women apologize and the reasoning behind it. While many women say “sorry” as automatically as they say “hello” and “goodbye,” they also apologize for the littlest things.

Take me, for example. I’ve started apologizing to my yoga teacher when I can’t hold my position in my beginner yoga class. This is not good.

“By taking responsibility for things that aren’t your fault, you denigrate your self-esteem,” Linda Sapadin, Ph.D., author of Master Your Fears: How to Triumph Over Your Worries and Get on with Your Life ($16, amazon.com)tells Fitness magazine.

“Women are biologically wired for harmony and nurturing. For most women the apology is a way of keeping the peace,” says Judi Clements of Judi Clements Training & Development. She cited a study where a group of young girls are offered one pickle. Unlike the boys, who each fight to take the pickle themselves, the girls go to great lengths to split the pickle equally. Woman would rather do really tough things—like share a single pickle—than make a mistake or upset someone.

Women can really have an auto-apology problem.

“Men aren’t actively resisting apologizing because they think it will make them appear weak or because they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions,” said study researcher Karina Schumann, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Waterloo. “It seems to be that when they think they’ve done something wrong they do apologize just as frequently as when women think they’ve done something wrong. It’s just that they think they’ve done fewer things wrong.”

Personally, I think I apologize a lot because it makes me seem polite. I may do it in hope that the other person will feel bad and forgive me of this awful thing I did, like spill a little water on the floor or pick up her coffee at Starbucks by accident. In certain settings this won’t hurt me, but in the office this can be a bad move.

“But it seems that if many men are issuing apologies without understanding why, and women are both issuing and demanding apologies with greater frequency, there is an obvious misalignment. This can be dangerous, particularly because of the power relations involved in being the apologizer versus the aggrieved,” writes Alison Fairbrother of Politics Daily.

Bottom line: Your coworkers will start to respect you less if you’re constantly apologizing.

So what can we do to get over this?

  1. Keep track of how many times you say sorry. Look at when you’re using it, how often, and why. Are there situations that really merit it, or do you act like you killed someone when you step on someone’s foot?
  2. Save your apologies. Don’t waste a good “I’m sorry” when you forgot to put an extra sugar in your friend’s coffee. Save it for when a friend needs actual sympathy, because your “sorry” loses value when you overuse it.
  3. Apologize in code. Most of us were raised to be polite, so we feel like we have to apologize when we’re late or when we inconvenience someone. At work, where your “sorry” is detrimental, come up with a different way to say it. If you’re late for a meeting try, “Thank you for your patience; I appreciate it.”
Do you think women apologize too much? Tell us in the comments!


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36 Comments

This is a great article and hits home for many men and women alike. In the past year I have tremendously decreased the amount of times I apologize during the day simply by thinking "is this something I am truly sorry for?". 90% of the time it's not!

6mo

How do you get someone to realize that they apologize too much? My wife refuses to admit she apologizes all the time. I tell her she does, but that goes on deaf ears.

5mo

Every time I ask my wife a question the first words out of her mouth are "I'm sorry". She apologizes for everything. If I ask her the time she says I'm sorry. If I ask her to repeat something she says I'm sorry. If I ask her what time she's coming home she says I'm sorry. It's beginning to drive me crazy. I tell her she doesn't have to apologize and she says well I have to apologize I screwed up. What do I do?

6mo

I'm fairly certain I'm an auto-apology kinda girl. I'm going to start keeping track of how many times I apologize today or this week -- especially when dealing with patients.

And "thank you for your patience, I appreciate it" is such a wonderful substitute for an apology when "sorry" isn't really warranted.

2y

Really appreciate this article. Auto apologizing is something to always be conscious of. I'd love more suggestions for other phrases to use in the place of "sorry."

2y

"Pardon me" is another saying I have starting using in certain situations - especially good for when you accidentally bump into someone.

6mo

… but if your friend asked for sugar in her coffee and you didn't do it, you SHOULD say you're sorry, because you messed up the order. Is it a big deal? No. But what are you supposed to do, shrug your shoulders and say 'get over it'? That's rude.

Yes, women apologize too much. But apologize when you were wrong, just don't go overboard.

2y

I remember this article when it first came out a year ago. It's still relevant!

2y

Another way to correct is start a quarter jar - every time you apologize that doesn't require an apology throw in a quarter. It's amazing how fast that jar fills up.

2y

This is a great article. I have definitely been guilty of saying "sorry" one too many times ... will work on it! #SorryImNOTsorry

2y

I am so guilty of this. I didn't realize I was even doing it until the people closest to me started pointing it out. Now that I'm aware I find myself curbing / breaking the habit. I love the tips for getting started down the path to only saying "sorry" when you really REALLY mean it!

2y

Thank you for this fantastic article. I am definitely an apologizer and am excited to start using these tree steps to try and get over it! Hopefully this will boost my self-esteem and confidence. #AutoApology

2y

I find myself apologizing far too often, and for minimal things, I love the idea of saving your "sorries" for real incidents. And also, how the more you use "I'm sorry" the less genuine it seems. Thanks!

2y

Love it! Would love Part II for the article with more alternative wordings. I catch myself all the time but a list to start using would be great.

3y

I love the rephrasing suggestion. I'm really trying to work on saying "no problem" and "I'm sorry" at the office, and in other situations I think a simple, polite (not catty!) "excuse me" fits the bill.

3y

I tend to do it more in my personl life. It is way of deflecting guilt sometimes.

3y

I love that you included alternative phrasing - that's a good babystep to breaking the habit!

3y

“By taking responsibility for things that aren’t your fault, you denigrate your self-esteem,” Linda Sapadin, PhD, author of Master Your Fears: How to Triumph over Your Worries and Get on with Your Life, tells Fitness Magazine.

This quote embodies my biggest career pitfall. I work incredibly hard and turn out great results, and yet I apologize for things totally unrelated to my work and things I am not responsible. I'm sure it makes the apologies I do need to make seem less sincere. I think the worst part is that I actually feel sorry all the time. We need to nip this degradation and self-tear-down attitude in the bud.Thanks for the encouraging article.

3y

I feel that "I'm sorry" has become the default response when what women really ought to say is "excuse me" or "pardon me." My addition to your great list would be to think about whether the situation actually warrants an apology, or if you can indirectly apologize using "excuse me," which doesn't strike the same chord as coming off as someone who constantly apologizes.

3y

Thank you for giving suggestions for what to say instead!

I often see this used in customer service positions to soothe a customer even when a problem comes up that was nobody,or even the customer's fault. I have to say it all the time to customers when they do something against policy because we're required to be sympathetic and placating. I don't personally feel responsibility for their problem but for some reason it makes them feel better that I act like it. I agree it is way over used.

3y

I really love the alternative to saying 'sorry' at the end. The reason for me has been manners; 'sorry' feels polite but I don't feel it reduces my confidence. Please, add more alternatives! :) Great article.

3y

This is such a good one!
I always found myself doing this and disliked it.
I started replacing 'Sorry' with 'Oops' so I still feel like I meant a sorry.
Point 3 is useful.

3y

I love this alternative: “Thank you for your patience, I appreciate it.”

3y

Such an inspiring article! Woman do tend to take responsibility for things that they didn't do wrong. I'm so glad you posted this and gave the suggestion of rephrasing "sorry". I love that idea!

3y

This is definitely a problem that I struggle with. In my teens to early twenties, it was chronic. It reached a point where I'd apologise when someone else bumped into me. Ridiculous much?! Thankfully I've toned down my auto-apology over the last few years.

3y

I think women say "sorry" often because they care about not inconveniencing other people, which isn't a bad thing. I like the suggestion of rephrasing "sorry." Another expression I'd like to hear women stop using so often is "no worries."

3y

Whenever I hear people saying 'no worries' I want to ask if they are Australian. How did it become standard in the US to say that?

2y

Instead should we say "Akuna Matata"?

2y

Yes, it's a giant problem and I'm definitely going to stop. This article is an eye-opener. Thanks for writing.

3y

I completely agree with you, Laure - I worked on doing this as well as I transitioned from school to the workforce a few years ago, and it built up my self-esteem and confidence.

3y
Meredith Lepore

Meredith is the Editor at Large for Levo League. Before that she was the Editor in Chief of The Grindstone and was on staff at Business Insider. She has written for magazines including Marie Claire, SELF, Women's Health and Cosmopolitan. She earned her Masters in Magazine, Newspaper and Online journalism from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. Meredith resides in New York full time and enjoys SoulCycle, jogging and playing with her Yorkshire Terrier Otis, who also loves SoulCycle.