How to Stop Over-Apologizing

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A lot of people find it difficult to say, “I’m sorry.” However, women tend to overuse the phrase, especially in workplace communication. Yes, some people are more amenable than others regardless of gender, but women are often overly apologetic because they feel the need to comply to the expectation that they should always be polite and likable. But apologizing in the midst of any non-ideal situation can make you appear insecure, passive and insincere. So how do we stop? In this post, we give you a few scenarios in which an apology may not be necessary as well as a few ways to kick the habit.

Scenario 1:

You’re in a monthly team meeting and the leader invites questions and comments during their presentation. Multiple people have interjected and/or raised their hands to speak, but you’re usually quiet during meetings. You have something you want to share, so you raise your hand and wait to be called on. You begin and end your comment with an apology for interrupting.  

Why did you apologize?

Due to gender stereotypes, women in the workplace are afraid of being perceived as impolite when they offer feedback. However, this isn’t unique to the workplace. Overall, women are likely to apologize more than men because women have a lower threshold for what they consider to be impolite. For instance, when men inconvenience someone unintentionally, they are less likely to apologize because they assume they did nothing wrong whereas women are quick to apologize even when they aren’t directly responsible.

What can you do about it?

The first step is to recognize that you have nothing to be sorry for. In this scenario, you followed the rules and spoke in turn, so you shouldn’t apologize for participating and using your voice. Apologizing for speaking can make you appear self-conscious and unsure of your opinion. Instead of saying “sorry,” you can say “I have a comment,” to introduce your observation. When you speak with confidence, you might notice that people are listening more intently than before.

Scenario 2:

A colleague sends you an invitation for a meeting at 3PM. At 2:30PM they send you an email informing you that you are late to the meeting. You check the original invitation and notice that they sent you the wrong time. In your reply to their email, you apologize profusely for being late.

Why did you apologize?

In this case, you’re apologizing to avoid confrontation. Women are often more likely to apologize in order to maintain peace. In the moment, it may feel easier to take the blame before the negative response hits. Apologizing once or twice is no big deal, but saying sorry numerous times for a mistake that was not your fault can make you seem powerless and a bit disingenuous.

What can you do about it?

Stop anticipating a negative response. It would be completely unreasonable for your co-worker to blame you for a mistake that they made. Instead of apologizing, ask your coworker for clarification regarding the miscommunication. For instance, in this scenario you could reply: “My calendar says our meeting is at 3PM. Is this correct or do we need to reschedule?” This response gives your co-worker the benefit of the doubt as well as the opportunity to own up to their misstep. If you find that you always expect the worst outcome, you may need to do some deep digging to figure out where your catastrophic thinking comes from.

Scenario 3:

Your boss comes to you with their idea for tackling a new project. You’d been thinking about the project in your own time and came up with a few ideas. In fact, you realized that your ideas may be better than what your boss presented. Your boss has made it clear in the past that they welcome feedback and differing opinions, but you begin your expression of dissent with “I’m sorry for disagreeing, but…”

Why did you apologize?

When women assert their opinions and act confidently, they tend to be fearful of being perceived as bossy and inflexible. By apologizing to your boss before disagreeing, you are negating the power of your opinion in order to seem less self-assured. While the stereotype of the bossy woman is completely unfair, you’re not being overly cautious by trying to prevent the assumption from forming. Certain behavioral norms can trigger a negative reaction in others when women lead or share differing opinions. 

What can you do about it?

Don’t apologize, communicate. If you and a fellow employee have different ideas for taking on a project, that is more than ok. In fact, diversity of opinion often leads to better results in the workplace. You can start off by saying “I see the benefits of your suggestion, but I had something different in mind.” Then, you can explain your alternative point thoroughly and politely. If you back up your points with facts and sound reasoning, your co-worker cannot be upset that you disagree with their suggestion. Speaking through your thoughts will also help you realize that these types of disagreements are necessary in the workplace.

Nowadays, women are more unapologetic than ever. It’s time to stop accepting blame for other people’s mistakes and apologizing for being present and engaged. You were hired because you have great ideas and contributions and, despite what you might think, people do want to hear them. Get out there and continue to excel and assert your opinion without apologies!

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Profile Photo Sherie Sanders

Great scenarios Danielle! And thank you for the specific suggests on what to do instead of apologize! Are you familiar with the work of Debra Tannen, who studies gender differences in communication?

Profile Photo Erica P. Harris

It was not until I read an article stating you should not apologise for something outside your control that I made progress in correcting some of the described behaviours whether in writing or verbally.