June 25, 2015

Sorry, Not Sorry: The Phenomenon of Female Over-Apologies


Perhaps it is my southern upbringing or my deep-seeded desire to “people-please”, but lately I have been called out by multiple people for apologizing unnecessarily and (almost annoyingly) frequently.  What I started to notice is that often when I was apologizing, I wasn’t even actually sorry.  I was saying sorry as an attempt to alleviate tensions, rather than as an expression of guilt or empathy.  In fact, I started to notice that the angrier, more frustrated, or uncomfortable I became, the more I apologized.

Before giving negative feedback or disagreeing with a peer, I would preface it with “I’m sorry, but…” or “Maybe it’s just me, but…”  And then I caught myself apologizing before even non-aggressive statements, such as when requesting clarification, asking why a deadline hadn’t been met, or simply voicing an idea in a crowded room.

That’s why when I read an article in the New York Times titled, “Why Women Apologize and Should Stop,” it resonated with me on many levels.  As someone who actively tries to be direct and assertive in my work and personal life, this article helped me realize how I have been letting passive-aggressive vernacular sneak into both.

[Sorrys] sound like tiny acts of revolt, expressions of frustration or anger at having to ask for what should be automatic. They are employed when a situation is so clearly not our fault that we think the apology will serve as a prompt for the person who should be apologizing.

The epitome of passive-aggressiveness. And as the least obtrusive form of aggression, it is also the easiest to dismiss.  The true meaning of the communication ends up being lost in the obscure cloaks of the apologetic delivery, and once again we end up not being heard.

This is not a new concept: Pantene created a popular (if somewhat controversial) video in 2014 that prompted much discussion about women’s obsessive need to apologize.

It is a crisis in professional communications that even as more and more strong, successful female role models continue to appear in business, we are still communicating as if our very existence in the conversation is an intrusion.

To counter this trend, I am urging all women (myself included) to STOP apologizing when we are NOT sorry!  Especially in the workplace.  Not only will this help women convey their ideas with more confidence and declaration, it will enhance collaboration for everyone in the workplace as the “apologetic haze” is lifted and clear, crisp communication prevails.

(Photo: Sorry In Sydney… by flickr user butupa via Attribution 2.0 License)