It seems like every few months, I come across similar versions of the same social media post. Tweets and graphics (usually from women) will proclaim things like, “Women have to stop saying sorry” and “LADIES, it’s time to stop apologizing for everything.”
What follows in the comment sections of these posts is almost always fascinating. There will be fervent support for the statement from fellow women who believe others should be less apologetic and more defiant. There are self-identified apologizers who admit they need to learn how to communicate assertively at work. And then there are those who think that saying you’re sorry is simply a way of being conscientious of those around you.
All of these perspectives highlight a common question: Why do women apologize, or at least seem to apologize, more than men? A 2010 study published by the National Library of Medicine analyzed why women tend to apologize more frequently than men and found that women perceive that they are committing more offenses, as compared to men, who tend to have a higher threshold for what they perceive to be offensive behavior. Essentially, women tend to view less serious offenses as deserving of an apology.
When you’re starting your first postgrad job, it can be easy to get sucked into this mindset. In my own experience, I certainly used to be someone who would apologize when it wasn’t necessary. Saying that I was “sorry for asking” questions to internship and job managers was a habit I had to learn to break. Avoiding sharing my opinions in social situations to prevent any discomfort is another instance I look back on with regret. While I knew what I had to say was important, I lacked the confidence to express it. While few would argue that the answer to over-apologizing is a complete lack of remorse or empathy, there are ways for women and nonbinary people to more confidently assert themselves in traditionally male-dominated spaces.
Train your brain
Anyone outside of a white, heterosexual, male identity has likely been conditioned in some way to take up less space. This can appear in the form of speaking up less or saying things in a way that is obliging to someone else. In order to overcome this, it’s important to challenge some of your behaviors.
Career expert and founder of NetWerk®, Jen Ngozi, says that it’s especially important for people in underrepresented groups to unlearn certain patterns of communication. “From an early age, minorities often learn communication skills that don’t serve us in the workplace,” she tells Her Campus. “This can look like being too humble and apologizing unnecessarily to seem polite.”
Often, this leads to over-apologizing, which can undermine your authority and negatively impact your career. When you’re starting out in an entry-level position, you may feel the urge to apologize as a show of respect to your superiors, but they may actually have more respect for you if you act more confident. Ngozi adds that thankfully, it’s never too late to adopt an assertive communication style. She suggests using phrases like “Thanks for bringing that to my attention” or “I appreciate you noticing the error” in place of apologizing. By rethinking your use of language in messages and conversations, you can build awareness of where you can be more intentional. Making these small edits gives you a better chance of getting what you need.
view your peers as equals
When I first began working in a professional setting, one of the best pieces of advice I received was to view my colleagues (even the higher-ups!) as working toward the same goal as me. It can be easy to be intimidated by someone’s status within an organization and shrink into yourself when it comes to speaking up, especially if you’re fresh out of college and new to the role or the company. However, this only prevents you from bringing all that you have to the table.
Eva Chan, a career counselor, resume writer and digital marketing specialist at Resume Genius, tells Her Campus that being more assertive helps those around you gain a deeper understanding of who you are.
“Once you become more comfortable with asserting yourself, you’ll feel more liberated and comfortable with who you are and what you’re capable of,” Chan explains. “Others will see it, too — employers, friends, and loved ones who respect your boundaries and assertive communication style will hold you in high regard.”
While you can maintain respect for the positions of your colleagues and those of more advanced leadership, don’t allow it to minimize your voice. The loudest voices in the room don’t necessarily have the best ideas, so remembering your value and vocalizing your perspectives is an important way to prove that you’re meant to be there.
If you’ve been a people-pleaser for most of your life, you might find it difficult to voice any disagreement and rock the proverbial boat. In order to become more assertive, though, you have to practice disagreeing out loud.
The Mayo Clinic suggests that implementing a few strategies can help improve your assertiveness. One way to do this is by using “I” statements to let others know what you are thinking without sounding accusatory. For example, you could say, “I disagree” rather than “You’re wrong.” Other ways to practice assertion include rehearsing what you want to say in various encounters and using confident body language, such as upright posture and eye contact, to engage with others.
Chan adds that practicing your assertive skills with strangers or those who don’t play a significant role in your life can be a great place to start. “It’s not always easy to suddenly become bold and self-assured if that’s not naturally who you are,” she says. “I suggest training yourself to uphold your values and preferences in lighter situations first.”
Some examples of this might include waiting 24-48 hours before agreeing to a plan to make sure it’s something you truly want to do and saying, “Thank you for your patience” rather than apologizing to acquaintances who have been waiting for a response from you.
Over the past few years, I’ve learned to disagree more openly. In work spaces, I can point out flaws in ideas or strategy without thinking that I’m overstepping. In social situations with friends and family, speaking up about the issues I care about has helped me reflect on and understand my own beliefs more deeply. It helped me realize that my previous passive behavior led me to create unnecessary obstacles for myself. Being a better communicator requires you to let go of passive behavior and embrace assertive behavior, where you can express your ideas in a direct and mindful way. It’s important to remember that assertive behavior and respect are not mutually exclusive. You can be both confident and kind in your interactions.
Like any skill you want to improve on, becoming more assertive and less apologetic takes time and repetition. You may not nail it during your first postgrad job, but you owe it to yourself to at least try.
When it comes to the value of asserting yourself more clearly and creating healthy boundaries, Chan explains that these steps are essential in building your authentic self. “Your expectations, opinions and preferences are what make you unique, and it would be a shame to live without fully expressing who you are,” she says.
Learning to fully step into personal and professional spaces without second-guessing yourself will help you build your confidence and learn from your mistakes. Though asserting yourself might seem out of your comfort zone at first, things will grow easier as you strive to learn and engage.
The person you become will make it worthwhile.
Jen Ngozi, Founder of NetWerk®
Eva Chan, Career Counselor, Resume Writer and Digital Marketing Specialist at Resume Genius
Schumann, K., and Ross, M. (2010). Why women apologize more than men: gender differences in thresholds for perceiving offensive behavior. National Library of Medicine.