Needless Apologies: Why Women Constantly Apologize and How to Stop

Saying “sorry” is one of my worst habits. I don’t remember when I started doing it, but I find myself apologizing all the time for things that don’t require an apology at all. I say “sorry” when someone bumps into me while walking around campus. When I visit my professor’s office hours, I always start the conversation with “sorry to bother you,” even though I know that they have been waiting in their offices for students to come talk to them. I apologize to my boss when he asks if I am free to cover a shift and I can’t do it. I say “sorry” to people when asking them for a favor, and I apologize for taking up someone’s time, even when they offered to spend it with me in the first place. 

I know that I’m not alone in this habit. Countless articles have been written about why women feel the need to apologize more often than men, why women worry so much about being liked by their co-workers when men don’t, and why women have been taught to be submissive, even when in positions of power. Society has engrained in the minds of women that taking action and being strong is wrong, and because we are doing something wrong, we have to apologize for that. In professional settings, constant apologies project a lack of confidence, thus many women are not taken as seriously as their male counterparts even when, in most cases, they are more competent and qualified. 

So why is this idea of a “constant apology” so unique to women? One aspect of this behavior may be the subliminal messages women have grown up hearing throughout their lives. I am willing to bet that every woman, at one time or another, has heard the phrase, “girls can’t do that because…” We have been internalizing these messages of sexism since a very young age. With magazines and commercials depicting the same ideal of a “perfect” woman or hearing that we can’t achieve the same success as men because we are “too emotional,” it breaks down our own self-image and feeling of self-confidence or self-worth. Because we have been told for so long that there are things that we should and should not be doing, when we actively go against what we have been told we cannot do, many women feel the need to apologize for their successes instead of celebrating their achievements. 

Another reason why this behavior is so prevalent amongst women has been discussed by Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead and COO at Facebook. Sandberg writes that, “When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less…In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements, especially in the presence of others. We put ourselves down before others can.” Therefore, many women in leadership roles constantly apologize to avoid sounding rude or bossy. 

Now, how do we stop constantly apologizing? In her TED talk at TEDxTrinityBellwoodsWomen, sociologist Maja Jovanovic suggests that instead of saying “sorry,” we replace the word itself with a word or words with a similar meaning. So, when someone bumps into you on the street, you could replace “sorry” with “go ahead” or “after you.” Instead of saying “sorry to interrupt,” she suggests saying, “I have an idea” or “what about this?” If you forget to respond to a text or an email right away, an apology isn’t needed. Instead, Jovanovic suggests telling the person what you were doing, for example “I was in a meeting” or “I was with my family.” 

Her biggest suggestion, however, is to substitute “sorry” with “thank you.” She gave the example of when she was at a lunch meeting with her co-workers at a restaurant. She says, “Four of us were at a restaurant for a work meeting, and we’re waiting for number five to arrive … I put my sociological cap on, and I thought, ‘What would he say? How many apologies will he give?’ I could barely stand the anticipation. He arrives at the restaurant, and you know what he says? ‘Hey, thanks for waiting.’ … The rest of us said, “Yeah, you’re welcome,” and we all just opened our menus and ordered. Life went on, and everything was fine.” Jovanovic says that this moment helped her to see the effectiveness of gratitude and decided to implement this strategy in her own life.

Jovanovic’s suggestions seem so simple and easy, but they may be much harder to implement when the habit is so engrained in us. But, it’s an important habit to break that will bring much more success in the long run.