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Is It True That Women Apologize Too Much?

Not all apologies are created equal.


Art Credit: Taylor McCutchan

Do I apologize too much? I started to ask myself this question after a former employer threatened to fire me if I apologized one more time. Oh gosh, sorry about that—Wait! Ah, no!

Well, I began to pay more attention, both at work and among friends, and I realized that the women in my surroundings apologize far more frequently than men. It’s becoming so evident, there are even commercials made to encourage women to be confident and stop saying sorry. This ad from Pantene points out the many times we women apologize⎯at work, at home, even in bed⎯and asks us to not be sorry. Maybe we apologize simply to fill space, not realizing, as my friend’s mother says, “When women apologize too much, it weakens their soul.” Or maybe we apologize to soften assertive statements—“Sorry, but I think that’s wrong”—that might be perceived as “bossy.” As Chelsea Clinton noted in a recent talk at the University of Maryland, apologizing can be a “visceral” reaction for women. “Some of the best feedback I ever got,” Clinton told her audience was when she was working at McKinsey and one of the partners told her, “‘You’ve got to stop apologizing’ and, of course, I said, ‘I’m so sorry.’”

A 2011 study at the University of Waterloo confirmed my anecdotal evidence: Women do apologize more than men. While both men and women apologized 81 percent of the time when they thought they were at fault, women reported committing more offenses than men. It seems women are more likely to feel the need to apologize, resulting in their apologizing more than men do. Why would this be the case?

One explanation for this could be neurological. Recent studies show that social pain and physical pain activate common regions of the brain. We even use the same language to describe social pain that we use to describe physical pain, for example, crushed and burned. It seems women actually experience more pain than men experience. If a lower pain threshold in physical sphere parallels a lower pain threshold in the social sphere, women might be more sensitive to an imbalance or strain in a relationship, giving them a greater desire to apologize in order to restore it.

Is this sensitivity a weakness? Should women be sorry they’re so sorry? It could be that women more than men perceive the power of apologizing. Not necessarily. For many women, apologies are a way of reinforcing interpersonal connections—apologizing politely even when we’re not at fault. We can all provide anecdotal evidence of this, apologizing to the person we bump into when riding the subway, for example. Apologies contribute to healthy relationships by paving the way to forgiveness. Some people think love means never having to say you’re sorry. But closer to the truth is this: Love means saying I’m sorry as much as you say I love you.

Apologizing can be problematic, of course. You can use an apology insincerely as a weapon—“I’m so sorry you fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the ugly tree on your way down!” Or you can apologize passive aggressively; many people, for example, effusively over-apologize as a way to make it difficult for the other party to address the issue at hand or express their own feelings. Perhaps most problematic, you can mistakenly fall into the habit of apologizing for who you are (as opposed to your actions).

One thing’s for sure: We as women have to be aware of how much we apologize and understand where our apologies come from. They could come from insecurity, or could be a habit, or a way of overcompensating. Apologizing isn’t a bad thing; you don’t have to be sorry you’re sorry. But apologizing for who you are crosses a line. You are a unique and unrepeatable soul. And you should never apologize for that.

Photo by Taylor McCutchan