Do Women Apologize Too Much?

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Do Women Apologize Too Much?

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Yes, women apologize more than men. But is that really the problem?

“I need to stop saying sorry when I mean excuse me.”

That’s the mantra I whisper to myself when, after an awkward dance of “I just want to get past you” while trying to enter the grocery store as someone else is walking out, the words “I’m sorry” pour out of me like a reflex.

But I live in New York City, and stepping into the nearest Trader Joe’s, I know this is just the first in a series of negotiations through, behind and around each snack display and opening in the infamously serpentine checkout line. By the time I hit the sidewalk with two overstuffed bags of groceries, I’ve managed to apologize to at least a dozen more people.

It’s not just me and it’s not just a stereotype — women apologize more frequently than men. The findings of one 2010 study attribute these gender differences to women finding more behaviors and situations worthy of apology. (See: me navigating through a Manhattan grocery store)

Maybe these phrases sound familiar to you:

Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner.

Sorry to bother you.

Sorry that didn’t work out.

Sorry I missed that.

I know that I don’t need to say I’m sorry every time I ask for something. I know that I don’t need to apologize for having boundaries or taking up space. I know that too many sorries can undermine my own needs, abilities and authority. But as I beat myself up for my latest sorry, I wonder how much policing the way I speak is really helping. And it’s not just the sorries.

How many times have I combed through emails in search of an errant “just” to delete?

How many times have I stopped myself from following up a request with, “If not, no worries”?

How many times have I caught myself adding “If you know what I mean” to fill the silence at the end of my sentences?

“I wish I didn’t smile so much,” my girlfriend recently texted in our group chat. “And I wish I didn’t think about how much I smile,” she added.

This is the inner (and sometimes outer) monologue of women navigating the catch 22 of being a woman. Smile too much, and it undermines your authority. Don’t smile enough… it might also undermine your authority. Either way, you pay a price.

Whether it’s how much or how little women smile or apologize or use exclamation points in their emails, we’ve become so focused on telling women what they need to do differently, that we’ve lost sight of fixing the systems that penalize them in the first place. All of this talk about how women should behave differently also raises a question: Why do we insist women need to speak and behave more like men to be worthy of their respect?

Reading back through the 2010 study, “Why Women Apologize More Than Men”, I can’t help but question if it’s really that I’m over-apologizing, or if maybe men are under-apologizing.

In the study, students were asked to keep an online diary documenting both their apologies and the instances in which they thought they may have done something which required an apology. Both men and women apologized 81 percent of the time when they thought their actions were offensive, but women were more likely to think their actions were offensive in the first place. In other words, women were more likely to identify situations and behaviors that merited an apology.

With that in mind, I think back on those familiar phrases…

Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner.

Sorry to bother you.

Sorry that didn’t work out.

Sorry I missed that.

Even my trip to the grocery store…

Sorry I almost ran into you.

Sorry I didn’t see you there.

Sorry to ask you to move.

While my sorries may be the result of problematically gendered social conditioning, I’m not entirely sure they’re problematic in any of these (or even most) contexts.

My sorries say, I see you. I hear you. I’m considering how this behavior or situation is impacting you.

As long as we’re not subverting our own needs in the process, I wonder if we might not be better off making space for more of this kind of language across gender identity and contexts.

Some research that finds other cultures tend to apologize more in this way. It doesn’t undermine their power, it’s simply a way of expressing consideration.

“If not, no worries” acknowledges that I know you too have boundaries and that my requests are not demands and a “no” will not be held against you.

“Does that make sense” leaves space to be heard, understood and even questioned as needed.

“I’m sorry” can serve as everything from a display of empathy to an opportunity to step back, be wrong and accept responsibility.

I’m not advocating for women, especially those who’ve been disproportionately marginalized, to apologize in the name of politeness at all costs. There is a point in which the reflex to apologize comes at the expense of our own safety and wellbeing.

But if the threshold of situations and behaviors that triggered an “I’m sorry” was lower for more men — whether as an empathic response or a space to step back and take accountability — I wonder if women might have to contend with fewer instances of apologizing for the sake of others’ comfort and acceptance to begin with.

Whether it’s the frequency of our apologies or our exclamation points, the message to women is clear and constant: If you want respect, talk and behave more like men. But not only am I skeptical that equal respect and opportunity is as simple as cutting words like “just” and “sorry” from our vocabularies, I’m also skeptical of reinforcing a status quo that characterizes everything from empathy to accountability to enthusiasm as a weakness.

And in beating ourselves up over how much we do or don’t smile or apologize or exclaim!, we get stuck in a cycle of reevaluating our words and behaviors, instead of reevaluating the systems and organizations that penalize women no matter what they do.


I’d love to hear from you: Do you find yourself policing your own smiles, apologies, “justs” – what else? Let me know in the comments.

Know someone who can relate? Please share and remember to join us for more conversations like this one by subscribing to “Too Ambitious”.

Image: Carol Yepes/Moment via GettyImages

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