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Reframing How We Think About Saying Sorry

As simple as apologies seem, they can actually be a more complicated part of language. Recently, apologies and apologizing (and the reasons behind the words we use in these interactions) have been in the back of my mind. Just last month, I was eating dinner with my friend and her mom when, by accident, I lightly brushed her mom’s shoe. I immediately followed this by slipping out a “sorry.”  Her mom responded by saying “don’t be sorry, it’s just an accident.” A similar instance occurred with my roommate, and she nicely told me that I “apologize too much.” Reflecting on both of these small and rather minor incidents led to me thinking about the language I use, why I say certain words or phrases over others, and more generally how men and women communicate differently, specifically concerning apologies. 

When thinking about my use of the word “sorry” I began doing research to learn more about this topic. The New York Times article Why Women Apologize and Should Stop explains the findings of a prominent study on how men and women apologize. It found women apologize more than men, not because either men or women are less willing to apologize when they commit a wrongdoing, but because the threshold for what men and women view as an offensive action warranting an apology differs from one another. 

Women are more likely to think that sharing an opinion, making an assertive statement, or something as small as asking someone to move over on the metro, as requiring an apology. Similarly, I’ve noticed that I pepper my speech with “sorry’s” at the start of an assertive sentence or question: “Sorry, could I sit here?” “Sorry, I think the assignment was to do this,” or “sorry, I won’t be able to make it.”  

Rather than encourage women to curb their apologies, as some view this tendency to be polite as a form of undermining confidence, what I think might be more beneficial is asking yourself why you apologize in the first place. Try to find meaning behind your behavior and choice of language. Do you apologize because you crave the approval of those you are speaking with? Is it a form of self-depreciation? In these instances, you can try eliminating the apology, adjusting your language, and observing how this effects you. If you apologize out of politeness, you could consider changing your language in a way that still maintains it’s polite tone. However, if you believe a situation is having negative consequences on someone else, then saying sorry can be powerful for both the giver and recipient and is essential to maintaining healthy relationships.

In instances like mine, where I might apologize for simply sharing my opinion, I can swap out my “sorry” for a “thank you for listening” rather than instinctively offering a superfluous apology for speaking my perspective. 

Switching the language we use from apologetic to gratitude can help convey self-confidence to those we are speaking with, and I find more precisely expresses how I feel. When I and other women say an unnecessary “sorry” upon sharing our opinion, we are not actually sorry for the act of speaking or for what we’re saying. Rather, it is a learned reflex.

Embedded behind everyday communication styles and language choice lies deeper societal expectations and norms. Assertive women contradict the expectation that society often presents, and over apologizing can be a response to this. An additional benefit to adjusting our language is that when we do apologize and use a word like “sorry” it can carry more value and sincerity since it is chosen intentionally.

This is not to say to start apologizing less or more, but rather to take the time to reflect on the language we chose to use in our day-to-day interactions–to understand and possibly adjust our personal communication style. Any given instance of choosing whether or not to say sorry might be insignificant, and swapping out a few words might seem trivial, but the language we use when communicating in small moments throughout each day can compound and have a much larger role in shaping our mindsets, our perception of ourselves, and in turn how others treat us as well. 

From Connecticut, Meghan is a freshman at GW studying international affairs and journalism. She also writes for the culture section of GW’s student newspaper, is a member of the Alpha Delta Phi society, Capitol Letters Literary Magazine, and CHAARG. In her free time, Meghan can be found going on runs throughout D.C., visiting local coffee shops, or browsing nearby bookstores.
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