Women tend to say “I’m sorry” much more than men. Here’s why, and how it can affect their careers.
I have a problem: I apologize all the time. I apologize when waiters screw up my order, I apologize when I trip and hurt myself, I apologize when someone else’s dog yaps at my dog (my God, I’ve even brought my dog into this sick situation!).
I don’t know when it started. I was definitely one of those kids who didn’t like to get in trouble growing up, and I probably thought saying “I’m sorry” would get me out of bad situations — but this has gotten excessive.
According to a new study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, I’m not the only one with this problem. A very blatant gender gap emerges when measuring just how often men and women apologize and the reasoning behind it. While many women say “sorry” as automatically as they say “hello” and “goodbye,” they also apologize for the littlest things.
Take me, for example. I’ve started apologizing to my yoga teacher when I can’t hold my position in my beginner yoga class. This is not good.
The thinking behind our apologies
“By taking responsibility for things that aren’t your fault, you denigrate your self-esteem,” Linda Sapadin, PhD, author of Master Your Fears: How to Triumph over Your Worries and Get on with Your Life, tells Fitness Magazine.
“Women are biologically wired for harmony and nurturing. For most women, the apology is a way of keeping the peace,” says Judi Clements of Judi Clements Training & Development.
She cites a study where a group of young girls are offered one pickle. Unlike the boys, who each fight to take the pickle themselves, the girls go to great lengths to split the pickle equally. Woman would rather do really tough things — like share a single pickle — than make a mistake or upset someone.
Women can really have an auto-apology problem.
“Men aren’t actively resisting apologizing because they think it will make them appear weak or because they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions,” said study researcher Karina Schumann, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. “It seems to be that when they think they’ve done something wrong, they do apologize just as frequently as when women think they’ve done something wrong. It’s just that they think they’ve done fewer things wrong.”
Personally, I think I apologize a lot because it makes me seem polite. I may do it in hope that the other person will feel bad and forgive me of this awful thing I did, like spilling a little water on the floor or picking up their coffee at Starbucks by accident. In certain settings, this won’t hurt me, but in the office, this can be a bad move.
“It seems that if many men are issuing apologies without understanding why, and women are both issuing and demanding apologies with greater frequency, there is an obvious misalignment. This can be dangerous, particularly because of the power relations involved in being the apologizer versus the aggrieved,” writes Alison Fairbrother of Politics Daily.
Bottom line: your coworkers will start to respect you less if you’re constantly saying, “I’m sorry.” (Click here to tweet this thought.)
So, what can we do to get over this?
1. Keep track of how many times you say “sorry.” Look at when you’re using it, how often and why. Are there situations that really merit it, or do you act like you killed someone when you step on someone’s foot?
2. Save your “sorries.” Don’t waste a good “I’m sorry” when you forgot to put an extra sugar in your friend’s coffee. Save it for when a friend really needs actual sympathy, because your “sorry” loses value when you overuse it.
3. Say “sorry” in code. Most of us were raised to be polite, so we do feel like we have to apologize when we’re late or when we inconvenience someone. At work, where your “sorry” is detrimental, come up with a different way to say it. If you’re late for a meeting try, “Thank you for your patience; I appreciate it.”
Do you think women apologize too much? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Meredith Lepore is the former editor of the women’s career site The Grindstone. Before that, she was on staff at Wall Street Letter and Business Insider and was a contributing writer for LearnVest. She earned her Masters in Magazine, Newspaper and Online Journalism from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University after graduating with a degree in Brain and Cognitive Science from the University of Rochester. Meredith resides in New York full-time and enjoys reading, jogging, shopping and playing with her puppy, Otis.