Lifestyle & Family

My apologies: The habit of saying sorry

Two women discuss over-apologizing and how to stop

Courtesy of Nick Fewings

Sorry! Oh, that was a tree.

Elizabeth Shaw is a Toronto-based administrative professional and mother who struggles with a nasty habit that bothers her from time to time: Being overly polite and apologetic. 

Shaw believes her habit partly stems from her client-facing career. She says she will apologize even when a mistake is someone else’s to make the other person more comfortable. Often, she will apologize when clients fail to understand her explanation of something. 

It’s not just Shaw who feels the need to be overly accommodating and apologetic. Other women, like stay-at-home mom Jenni McGuire of Toronto, feel the same way.  

McGuire believes over-apologizing during everyday interactions links back to childhood experiences. “Girls are expected to show and learn empathy at a young age,” she says. Something not equally expected of young boys.

“I think it’s something we pick up on when we’re little. It’s like protection,” says McGuire. 

“If you apologize first, even if you’ve done nothing wrong, it immediately makes the other person more comfortable,” she elaborates.

Shaw agrees with this sentiment. “Being empathetic lets you diffuse situations and make the other person feel more at ease, even if it’s 100 percent their fault,” she says. 

There is evidence to support what McGuire and Shaw know intuitively ⎯ that women learn these habits as children.  

Courtesy of RODNAE Productions

In an article for the Child Mind Institute, Rae Jacobson writes that young girls are expected to channel empathy more than boys. Jacobson added that society conditions girls to avoid coming across as “bossy.” 

This conditioning can become confusing to navigate when women get older, as they tend to downplay their success in an attempt to not hurt the feelings of others.

“Girls who don’t play by these rules often experience negative social feedback,” writes Jacobson. 

A research article in Psychological Science compares the apology habits of men and women. The study suggests men have a higher threshold than women for what requires an apology. It also determined that men view everyday offences as less problematic than women. 

This may be because women tend to agonize over social interactions. Anxiety and low self-esteem can also play a significant role. Women with generalized anxiety are more likely to find fault in their actions.

Additionally, low self-esteem can make women feel that they aren’t worthy of their relationships, causing them to apologize for minor things out of fear of losing their loved ones.

McGuire feels frequent apologies can sometimes do the opposite of their intention and bother friends and loved ones. 

“My husband and I went on vacation with another couple and shared a common kitchen and living space. I said sorry about 5,000 times a day,” she recalls.  

Women like McGuire and Shaw think it is time to break the habit of over-apologizing. Convulsively saying sorry may show empathy and a knack for smoothing over tense situations, but it can also make women and girls feel more vulnerable.

Courtesy of Anthony Tran

“Apologizing can be considered weak, and in nature, weakness is vulnerability,” McGuire said. However, she added that if she abandoned this habit completely, she might stand out too much.  

“Being different or standing out can draw unwanted attention. This is historically pretty dangerous for women,” McGuire said.  

As for breaking the ingrained habit, it can be downright difficult. A Forbes article suggests ways that women can break the habit of making unnecessary apologies. Mixing up vocabulary is a great start. 

Simply replacing the word “sorry” with other words that show responsibility and caring can go a long way. For example, saying “unfortunately” can still send the right message. Even saying “oops” would be appropriate in a casual setting.  

These words show that the speaker cares about social interactions without compromising confidence. Like Shaw said, “I’m no longer going to apologize when I’m offering an explanation. I think that’s a good start.” 

McGuire agrees with moving past the habit. She thinks breaking it entails finding a voice and continuing to nurture it.  

As women progress towards full equality, dropping the “sorry” habit, while retaining our innate empathetic abilities, is a small but important step towards empowerment.

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