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Learning When (and When Not) to Apologize

What do the following situations have in common?

1. A friend stubs her toe 

2. I’m late to a meeting

3. Someone is invading my personal space

4. Someone bumps into me in the school hallway  

The answer: In all of these cases, I would be tempted to say “I’m sorry.” To be more specific, I’d quickly gush, “That looks so painful, I’m so sorry!” “Sorry I’m late, did I miss anything?” “I’m sorry, would you mind taking a step back, please?” and “I’m so sorry, are you okay?” respectively. 

The result of constantly saying “I’m sorry” has led to my being labeled a classic over-apologizer. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard, “Stop apologizing, Alexis!” I’d be able to by a mansion by the coast, fly first class to Paris, and donate a notable sum to charity with a bit of money left over for a rainy day. As an over-analyzer as well as an over-apologizer, I’ve taken a lot of time to think about my habit of saying “sorry.” Why do I feel so compelled to beg others’ pardon? Do I really need to stop apologizing? How, if at all, should I change my behaviors? 

Let’s start with the first question. From a personal standpoint, I am aware that I am a people-pleaser. I care very much about doing the right thing, avoiding conflict, and being seen as good and kind. So, when any social infraction is committed, whether by myself or others, I’m compelled to say “I’m sorry” to diffuse tension, to seem less accusatory, or to demonstrate that I care. In addition – while this is a stereotype and not true of all women – it seems that my gender is partially to blame. Studies have shown that people who identify as female are more likely to apologize than those who identify as male. In their article “Why Women Apologize More Than Men: Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive Behavior,” Karina Schumann and Michael Ross explain that “Women reported offering more apologies than men, but they also reported committing more offenses. There was no gender difference in the proportion of offenses that prompted apologies. This finding suggests that men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior” (1649). In other words, while men and women are equally likely to apologize when they feel they’ve done something inappropriate, men are less likely to view their actions as offensive than women and are therefore less likely to apologize. The authors suggest that this difference could stem from women’s tendency to care more about social harmony and to be empathic (1654). I, personally, would also speculate that men are socially and culturally trained to apologize less than women. Saying “I’m sorry” is, in effect, admitting that you’ve made a mistake; by antiquated patriarchal standards, this might seem like admitting weakness, something some men refuse to do. Women, by contrast, have been trained to keep the peace, behave demurely, and apologize for any social infractions. While this is no longer the status quo for men or women, effects of the historical – and present – patriarchy linger on, compelling us to under or over-apologize respectively (though, again, this is just speculation). 

With a knowledge of why I, like many women, tend to play the “I’m sorry” card so frequently, I can move on to questions two and three: Should I listen to the many people who have told me to stop apologizing? Should I change my behavior? The answer, it seems, is both yes and no depending on the situation. If a friend gets hurt, saying “I’m so sorry!” is my way of showing empathy – I’m not berating myself for my friend’s clumsiness; I’m simply showing that I care about her and am sad to see her in pain. Similarly, I don’t feel I have to stop saying sorry when I’ve truly done something wrong. If I’m late to a meeting, I think it is right for me to apologize as my tardiness may cause an unnecessary delay or frustration. However, my mindset has shifted when it comes to other instances I once believed warranted an apology. 

A few months ago, I took a virtual self-defense class. After learning various physical defense tactics, our instructor began talking to us about warning signs in relationships and how we can use our words to set boundaries. In one example, she asked us how we would react if someone were standing uncomfortably close to us on the subway. “I’m sorry, but would you mind taking a step back, please?” I offered. The instructor pursed her lips. “It’s great to be polite,” she said, “but you should never apologize for asserting your needs.” My eyes widened as I realized that she was absolutely right. Even though it wasn’t my intention to come off as guilty for having a desire or opinion, that’s exactly how my message came across. It implied that I should apologize for inconveniencing the hypothetical stranger who was making me uncomfortable. And it didn’t make any sense. 

The wisdom of my instructor has helped me to catch myself when I apologize unnecessarily. If I want something or am feeling uncomfortable, I don’t need to say “I’m sorry” before making a polite, yet firm request. If someone bumps into me in a hallway, I should absolutely check to make sure that they are okay, but I have no need to apologize for their mistake. I also had a tendency to take responsibility for the actions of others in order to keep the peace. This, I now know, is unfair to myself. It is better that the person who did something wrong learn to take responsibility than for me to incriminate myself for something I didn’t do. 

I now understand that apologizing unnecessarily, no matter how well-intentioned my words, makes instances in which I am truly responsible and regretful seem disingenuous; when you say “I’m sorry” so often, it starts to lose its meaning. In the future, I plan to apologize more sparingly. And, while I may no longer accumulate enough wealth to by that waterside mansion, I’ll be a much more confident and comfortable communicator as a result. 

Alexis Bentz

Wash U '24

Alexis Bentz is a sophomore at WashU majoring in English with a concentration in creative writing.
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