Women, especially British women, tend to apologise more than men. While of course this is just a tendency, the reasons behind why a person might apologise too often are intriguing, and the repercussions can be damaging in a workplace, especially one dominated by men. However, this article isn't about correcting your language in order to fit societal norms, but more of a reminder that the way you speak can affect how you are perceived. Again, you don't need to change and that's not the point, but understanding why we do things is the first step to adjusting your habits, should you wish to.
Why do we over-apologise?
Are we subconsciously apologising for being women and/or ourselves?
Authors of The Confidence Code confirm that self-doubt is holding us back: many women don't have the same confidence in their careers as their male colleagues, or don't see their successes as that impressive, despite appearing so on paper. For example, a 2011 survey in which British Managers were questioned about their career confidence poses that: "half of women managers admit to feelings of self-doubt, but only 31% of men do." Various studies, including that of APS (April 2018), suggest that many women compare their own perception of their abilities (often an underestimation) to that of their confident male counterparts. Because they lack the same outward self-esteem, women feel even less worthy of their position in comparison to these males. Yet, their ability and performance are the same.
Do we have different perceptions of what is offensive?
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo rebuke the idea that women apologise more than men, due to the sole basis of anecdotal or unreliable evidence. They pose that the disparity between the amount of apologies given is due to the threshold of offense. Women, apparently, find more situations offensive than men, and therefore reflect such a view in the excessive use of "sorry". Lead researcher, Schumann, suggests that: "It's not so much that men are unwilling to apologise; it's just that they're seeing fewer offenses that deserve an apology."
There are also positives to over-apologising, particularly within the realm of superfluous apologies: "By saying 'I'm sorry about the rain', the superfluous apologiser acknowledges an unfortunate circumstance, takes the victim's perspective and expresses empathy for the negative circumstance – even though it is outside of his or her control," says Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School. However, is the value of empathy and trust as respected as, say, conviction and being taken seriously, particularly in male dominated areas of work?
Either way, it's not helping us, as one article commenter somewhat confirms: "Women apologize so often, I don't take it seriously." Even if we were to convince our society that women just inherently apologise more, we still wouldn't be taken seriously when we sincerely want to apologise. If we're lucky, we might get a reaction similar to that of young boys being naughty: "Oh, boys will be boys." "Oh women will be women"; all future "sorry"s will just be a 'confirmation' of our 'womanly ways' or the fact that we're 'always wrong'. Ouch.
So why should we stop apologising as much?
Well, hopefully it's clear that the more often you apologise, the less effective and salient it is. The word is so important, that it shouldn't be used lightly, or peppered into our everyday conversations. It's not even about who, it's just that our breath is wasted on over-apologising. If we only say sorry when we actually need to, then those select few apologies might start to mean something.
A study in the journal of applied social psychology explores two of the many factors impacting the effectiveness of a workplace apology: professional status and gender. They conclude that apologies are more effective than not apologising. However, the apology expectancy had a unique effect, unrivalled by the apology's sincerity and perceived motive, amongst other factors. An unexpected apology, often delivered by a male or a manager, scored highest in terms of effectiveness. An apology from a male in general appeared to be far more effective than others, especially from a male to a female within a workplace. These results suggest that you should say sorry rather than not, but the less frequent, or more unexpected, the more effective the apology will be.
When should I apologise then?
If it's trust, empathy and sincerity you want to convey at work, then only apologise when you've actually done something wrong, or you've made a decision that could negatively affect someone: you're late arriving at the office, you've had to let someone go, you sent the wrong attachment to a client. Everyone makes mistakes, or has to make tough decisions; as long you accept this, apologise, then move on, you'll be respected for it.
But that's it. If you haven't done anything wrong, and you're just being you, don't bloody apologise. You have to put up with you too. Don't destroy the salience of those meaningful "sorry"s by apologising for being yourself, or things out of your control. If you actively exert a dislike of your own actions by over-apologising, you almost allow others to treat you with less respect.
What do I say instead?
Try writing down every time you say 'sorry' over the next few working days. Then, review your notes and work out whether you can replace the 'apology' with another word that still conveys the same politeness. For example:
"[Excuse me], can I interrupt you there?"
"I think I misheard, what did you say? / Pardon?"
"Excuse me, can I get past you?"
"Oops, you seem to have mixed up these numbers."
"Could you have another look at this? You might have misunderstood the task."
"Can you spare a moment? I have a request."
Apologising isn't weak, but when you apologise for everything, especially yourself, you allow others to impart blame upon you. So if you can mindfully catch yourself before you apologise for someone else making a mistake, you might put yourself in better stead for when you want to deliver a truly sincere "I'm sorry".
The quicker you can come to accept yourself, the sooner others will too. No. Apology. Necessary.