Sorry really isn’t the hardest word, it turns out. In fact, it’s something many women say far too often, particularly in situations which don’t warrant an apology. Think back to the last time you apologised.
Was it a “sorry to bother you” at the beginning of an email about money you are owed? Did you apologise for sending back a cold, uncooked dinner at a restaurant? If you’re a woman, the chances are you didn’t need to say sorry.
Earlier this year, freelance journalist Marianne Eloise sparked an important conversation about over-apologising, confidence and self-worth. After sending out emails asking people to cover the launch of her zine, she realised she had apologised in every single one.
Irritated at herself, she posted a tweet mocking her own emails. It simply read “no!! worries!!! if!!!!!!!! Not!!!!!!!!” The tweet was shared thousands of times, mostly among women.
By definition, an apology is an acknowledgement of failure or wrongdoing. But it also depends on the context too. For example, saying “sorry” can be a way of showing respect or maintaining relationships. But why is there a discrepancy between men and women when it comes to apologising?
According to a study by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, women are more likely to apologise more often because they have a lower threshold than men for what they consider offensive. Women usually also find the person at the receiving end to be more deserving of an apology than men, the study found.
Gender stereotypes and systemic hierarchies influence the way we use apologies too. “Women have been socialised to behave this way starting from a young age,” says Georgene Huang, CEO and co-founder of Fairygodboss. “Generally speaking, girls are taught to be polite and accommodating as opposed to boys who are taught to be bold and strong-willed.
“These behaviours are reinforced throughout a variety of social structures and practices which is why they carry over into the workplace.”
Louise Lapish, an executive career coach, adds that frequent apologising is symptomatic of passive language. “There have been interesting stats about how much women have been juggling during lockdown and how they have found themselves apologising to everyone for everything,” she says.
Some argue that there’s no harm in saying sorry, even if it’s unnecessary. After all, it can keep the peace in the workplace — and nobody wants to be deemed rude or unfriendly.
But over-apologising can have a negative impact on women’s careers and their wellbeing, Huang says.
“Apologising unnecessarily can have negative effects on both your personal reputation and your view of yourself,” she says. “While you may think you're being kind or empathetic, saying ‘sorry’ too much can give off the appearance of incompetence and undermine your authority or expertise with colleagues, managers, and clients, among others.”
On top of that, constantly apologising for things you don't need to apologise can cause you to doubt your own abilities. Essentially, apologising unnecessarily puts women “lower” than the person they are apologising to.
“Apologising is often a sign that we want to please other people, or that we perceive them as more important, so can have an impact on self esteem,” Lapish says. “Being passive and not valuing yourself can mean people take on too much work, never say no and put other people first.”
Women may want to consider how often they apologise. Constantly saying sorry — “I’m sorry I didn’t reply straight away” — can often reinforce the notion that you’re in the wrong.
“Training yourself to stop saying ‘sorry’ takes active effort, but luckily there are plenty of resources you can use to replace your go-to vocabulary,” Huang says. One of the best places to start is with your emails, she adds.
“Re-read them before you hit send and if you started out with ‘Sorry for the delayed response’ delete it and try again. Once you get in the habit of not saying ‘sorry’ in emails it will become easier for you to recognise every time you say it out loud and start to make those changes in your language.”
And remember your right to be assertive too, Lapish says. “Remove the word ‘sorry’ as a filler word. My top tip is to take a few minutes to plan what you need to say before you are in that situation. Even if that means walking away and going back at a later point.”