Here's how to put an end to this social habit once and for all.

Raven Ishak
August 07, 2020
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If there's one thing women hear over and over again (aside from "You should smile more"), it's "Stop apologizing." As women, we tend to apologize for our opinions, standing up for ourselves, or sometimes, just for simply existing. But do women really apologize far more than men do, especially at work? And if so, how can we stop saying sorry for the things we shouldn't actually be sorry about?

According to a 2010 study conducted by the University of Waterloo in Canada, women were found to apologize more than men (the percentage wasn't identified in the study) but only because, as the researchers found, men "have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior" and even rated their offenses less severely than the women did. This way of thinking may be a result of how our society has long encouraged men to be seen as "tough and strong"—not people who apologize.

But there's real merit in saying sorry, for people of all genders. Dr. Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear, says that those who learn the "art of apologizing" tend to feel better about themselves, which can help build their self-esteem. And for women—this is imperative, as a study that began in 2016 by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, of leadership development consultancy Zenger/Folkman, found that 30 percent of women 25 years old or younger said they felt confident at work while around 50 percent of men reported the exact same thing. "Men often see apologizing as a weakness (in themselves and in others), so it is important for women to become stronger in this area, but not at the expense of mimicking the harmful, apology-avoidant style so pervasive among men," Dr. Manly explains.

Of course, that doesn't mean we should say sorry when we don't actually have to, especially when it comes to our careers. Because if we continue this habit, it can be detrimental not only to our career but to our self-esteem as well. To help distinguish exactly what we shouldn't have to apologize for at work, we connected with a few experts. Read below to hear their thoughts on why women apologize and how we can monitor ourselves to say it less often.

HelloGiggles (HG): Why do women apologize so much at work? Why is this such a bad thing?

Women apologize more than their male counterparts partly due to the way we are groomed and brought up as girls. To an extent, we hold on to what we were taught. I dislike painting a large brush stroke but generally speaking, women want to be liked and men want to be respected. Women tend to be concerned with how we are perceived and how people respond to us. I’m not saying we don't want respect, but for most women, it’s important that our coworkers and peers like us and socialize with us. We tend to apologize for things that need no apology. We think it makes us "nicer," more "likable," and more approachable. And dare I say, less of a "bitch."

A change is needed because, as women, we already have certain strikes against us. Profusely apologizing stunts our growth and hits our confidence right in the gut. Why? Because when we are apologizing, we’re not standing behind our beliefs. We silence our voice. We jeopardize our seat at the table.

—  Jackie Mitchell, executive career coach

If a woman learns to apologize as a way to appease others or avoid conflict, she may find that she is taken advantage of in many situations. When a woman uses apologies as a way to “make nice,” she can actually (unconsciously) encourage aggressive or toxic behavior on the part of others. However, if a woman uses an apology in a genuine, heartfelt way when she has made an error or caused some type of harm, that authentic apology is a sign of self-awareness, other-awareness, and strength.

— Dr. Manly

HG: Can saying sorry a lot impact your self-esteem, especially at work?

Absolutely. In fact, when a woman says “I’m sorry” to placate others, avoid confrontation, or win approval, her sense of self-respect will be affected. Solid self-esteem is built by learning from life’s challenges and standing up for oneself. Over-apologizing is generally inauthentic and gives this message to the self and others: “My truth does not matter. My genuine self does not matter. I will appease others at great expense to myself.” Women who over-apologize are generally well-meaning and do not realize the negative effects of this age-old behavior. And although over-apologizing can be a subtle behavior, it is truly toxic to the self and to women as a whole.

— Dr. Manly

HG: What are some times when you should you actually apologize?

Saying sorry for everything where it doesn't fit or doesn’t make sense inadvertently damages your credibility and reputation. I recommend only apologizing when you believe you've done something wrong or made a mistake. Then and only then should you apologize. Using it in a regular conversation for no apparent reason diminishes trust because when you’re truly sorry for something, your apology may not come off as sincere.

— Mitchell

  • You're doing it to seem less intimidating. Sometimes we say "I'm sorry" because we think we're making others feel at ease. By saying sorry, you're undermining yourself and your confidence and you're devaluing the point you're about to make.
  • You're apologizing for having an opinion. We can be fearful to come across combative or to hurt someone's feelings when we express our opinions at work, and so we often apologize for them before we even begin. You were hired and are in the room because you bring value and a different perspective than everyone else. You don't need to apologize for that.
  • You don't actually have anything to be sorry for. We say sorry when we're in the wrong, if we've offended someone or if we've come across rude. If none of those apply, then stop apologizing! Incessant apologizing impacts others' perception of you and can actually cause them to believe you aren't as capable or trustworthy. So, if you haven't done anything harmful, remove "sorry" from your vocabulary.

—  Foram Sheth, co-founder and chief coaching officer of Ama La Vida

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It’s always appropriate to offer a singular, genuine apology if one has said or done something that is offensive, hurtful, or discourteous, or disrespectful. A well-intentioned, thoughtful apology actually increases self-esteem by encouraging self-reflection and responsibility-taking...For example, if a woman is late for a meeting and inconveniences others who cannot proceed without her, it is important to offer one short, genuine apology such as, “I apologize for being late and any inconvenience this caused.” No further apologies are required (women often continue to apologize for the same error or misstep over and over again). Aside from those situations, women should refrain from apologizing. It is never wise to apologize too much or to apologize inauthentically.

— Dr. Manly

HG: What should you not apologize for at work?

Women should no longer apologize for having differing opinions from peers and leadership. Stand strong in your convictions and have a voice. You’ll be taken much more seriously and have more respect when you are confident in who you are and what you believe in. Being the strong, confident woman you are, is enough. Apologies are for mistakes, not casual conversation qualifiers to soften the message. 

— Mitchell

  • Taking care of your health. Women regularly face different health challenges than men, and these are legitimate things that can impact your ability to perform at work. Let's say you have your period and you are feeling lethargic. Don't apologize for it. Just say, I'm feeling off today—I need some time.
  • Going on maternity leave. Don't feel bad or apologize because you have to take care of your child. Though challenging, this is a special time for you and your family, and you should not apologize for taking up every minute of it.
  • Sharing your thoughts. If you speak up or interrupt someone because others are talking over you, don't apologize. You have a right to share your thoughts and ideas and not be steamrolled or ignored in meetings.
  • Saying "no." Women often get asked (or volunteer) to take on additional administrative tasks at work on top of their day-to-day responsibilities. Sometimes this can be a great way to contribute and build skills. Yet other times, it can be a distraction from more strategic initiatives and higher priority tasks. Do not apologize for saying "no" to a particular task, meeting, or initiative that does not align well with your goals and priorities.
  • Asking for what you need, personally and financially. If you need to leave work early on a certain day of the week to take your kid to karate or if you want to sit down and have a candid conversation with your boss about your compensation, don't apologize for it. State your needs and asks clearly, back them up with data and concrete examples of your value and leave it at that.

— Sheth

HG: What should you stop apologizing for when it comes to setting boundaries? 

  • Prioritizing you and your health. Don't apologize when you need to take care of yourself, be it physical or mental. We're often conditioned to try and do or have it all, but that is an unattainable goal and unsustainable expectation of ourselves. To avoid burnout and continue to do your best work, you need to unapologetically prioritize your physical and mental wellbeing.
  • Prioritizing your loved ones. Don't apologize because you want to spend time with your family or because you have certain responsibilities as a caretaker. Make it clear to your team and leadership that the work will get done, and continue to make time for the people who matter in your life.
  • Prioritizing your time. Of course, we all need to be flexible and make exceptions on occasion for extenuating circumstances, but you don't need to apologize for setting boundaries around your personal life. I don't care if it's just your Tuesday night book club or your nightly bath time; your time is your time.      

— Sheth

HG: How can you monitor yourself to stop apologizing as often?

Honestly, as a former over-apologizer who still catches herself apologizing a bit too often, it’s important to be patient with yourself as you become more aware of your behavior. As well, instead of offering an “I’m sorry” (which can be easy to say in an offhand way), shift the verbiage to “I apologize for x, y, z.”  This subtle shift is an important one, as it requires the speaker to pause to think about the nature of the apology. This shift leaves the standard “I’m sorry” behind in favor of a thoughtful and appropriate, “I apologize for spilling coffee on your documents.”  

If a woman catches herself offering an apology that is not appropriate, it’s absolutely okay to retrain the brain by saying, “Oh, wait. An apology isn’t warranted here.” (I’ve actually used this strategy, and it does help because it’s not shaming, but it does help the mind refocus.) If a woman is not patient with herself as she learns to be mindful in her apologies, she might even start apologizing for apologizing—which is certainly not ideal.

— Dr. Manly

HG: What can you say instead of "sorry"?

We should say "thank you," and spin the sentence or comment to something that is more positive and direct. Here's an example: Instead of saying, "I'm sorry, I don't agree with that," you can say, "Thank you for your opinion, however, I think... I recommend... My suggestion is..." or you can say "I respectfully disagree but..." 

There is no reason to apologize because you haven't done anything wrong and your opinion counts. Women should just say what they need to say and that’s it. Let’s just stop saying sorry for no reason at all and start using our voice to stand in our boldness, assertiveness, and confidence. Your opinions matter. You stating facts matter. Your voice matters.

— Mitchell