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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Sorry to Say it, But You Apologize Way Too Much at Work

Does the following scenario describe you? You’re in a meeting and you have a question, but you start with, “Sorry to interrupt...” Or you’re indecisive about what you want on the lunch menu, so you apologize for taking so long. Or maybe someone sits down next to you and puts his arm on the armrest that you’re already using, so you apologize and move. Or, perhaps my personal favorite, you bump into a chair or a desk and then say, “Oh, I’m sorry!” If you can relate to any of these situations, you probably apologize too much.

You may protest. Isn’t apologizing a good thing? Yes! But only when you have committed some offense in a relationship that needs healing. When you apologize even though you’ve done nothing wrong, or you apologize repeatedly for a small offense, you send a message: you subconsciously tell your listener you’re insecure, unsure, overly-sensitive, or submissive. It’s funny—I’ve been talking with my daughters about this. They say, “Oh, sorry mom...” several times a day. It drives me crazy. Then this weekend, I heard a story (Enjoy the Suffering) on The Truth podcast, and one of the characters says to her sister, “No, don’t say you’re sorry. Saying sorry is just a way of tacitly admitting that you’re not going to change, but still giving yourself the credit for having good intentions. Don’t forget that.” And her sister responds, “You’re right. I’m sorry!”

Exactly! I thought that was perfect.

These are not the kind of impressions we want to communicate. So habitually saying sorry is something that needs to be overcome, but as with overcoming any habit, we need to first know why we do it.

Why Do We Over-Apologize?

It could be as simple as good parenting. Were you taught to take responsibility for your actions? Were you taught that saying you’re sorry is polite? Then you had good parents! However, some people feel the need to take responsibility for things that are out of their control, while others think they sound polite by constantly apologizing. But there’s usually more to it than just this.

A study published in Psychological Science examined the common perception that women apologize more than men. In this study, male and female participants kept a log of offenses that they perceived they had committed, and whether or not they apologized. They also kept a list of offenses they perceived others had committed. Consistent with our real-world experiences, women apologized more often than men. But why? Here was the interesting thing: Women actually perceived they had committed more offenses than men did, and they perceived others committed more offenses toward them. Big surprise—men are less sensitive to perceived offense than women are, so they apologize less often. But statistically, men apologized as frequently as women, when they thought they had done something wrong. They just didn’t see it as often as women did.

This can be seen so clearly in Proctor & Gamble’s Pantene commercial, titled Not Sorry. (If you haven’t seen the video, you really need to click the link.) The situations are all so familiar: A woman apologizes for asking a question in a meeting. Or she apologizes for entering a colleague’s office. She apologizes when a man sits down next to her and bumps her arm. The funniest part in the video is when a woman moves out of the way for a man, apologizes to him, bumps the woman next to her, who bumps the next woman, and all three of them are apologizing! Funny, but true.

As a woman, I can assure you I have done those very things. Did I feel I was doing something wrong by asking a question in the meeting? Well, maybe I felt I was interrupting. How dare I! But seriously, why would I apologize because someone else bumped into me? And yet I have. So it seems there is another reason for apologizing, as I mentioned in the beginning: a trained response in females to take a submissive role. As the mother of daughters, I hear this as a warning to bring them up polite, but not submissive.

This weekend, my family and I spent a few days with my sister and she mentioned to me, “Have you noticed that both Ariana and Daniela apologize for everything, even little things.” I was embarrassed. I had noticed, but I simply chalked the extra “I’m sorry’s” up to the fact that they are identical twins and fight more than most siblings simply because they spend so much time together. But I realize now I’ll need to talk to them about how to stop this habit of over-apologizing.

How Do We Overcome the Habit?

Beverly Engel, psychotherapist and author of The Power of Apology, gives this advice: First, recognize you have a problem. Next, pay attention to how many times you catch yourself apologizing. Then tell yourself, “I’m only going to apologize once.” If you feel you’re about to apologize again, count to three. That should stop it.

But there’s another issue to address: apologizing when there is no need. Did you do something wrong? Did you hurt someone? Is this issue your fault? Before you start to say you’re sorry, ask yourself these questions. If the answer is no, don’t apologize!

A more serious reason behind over-apologizing is a history of abuse. Unfortunately, victims of abuse become convinced that they are at fault, that somehow they deserve to be abused for what they did. Of course, that’s never true. No one deserves to be abused, no matter what. But the victim doesn’t see it that way. When over-apologizing is caused by such a history, it’s best to get some professional help to heal the underlying issues, not just the habit.

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This article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips. It has been republished here with permission.

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