My day starts at the gym, where I apologize as a woman and I both reach for the same kettle bell. After class, the locker room is bustling with Cross-Fit champs, distance runners, yogis, fitness newbies, cycling fiends, outdoor adventurers, motivated women getting ready for the office after an early workout. “Sorry,” says one woman sliding past another to get to a locker. “Sorry,” says another as two colleagues make room for her in front of the mirror. There’s no space on the benches, so I’ve found a corner in the room to change, where I repeatedly apologize for being in the way.

Women at locker room getting ready for training not saying sorry for standing in the way
Start your day as you mean to continue. Be respectful of your surroundings but there’s no need to be sorry. ©Maja Dedagic/GettyImages;

The work day has not yet begun and I’m suddenly struck by the juxtaposition of these early hours.

Women over-apologizing is hardly new news. But the moment I pause to actively note the sprinkling of “sorry” in my own world, I am stunned by its invasiveness and power. Before turning to the internet for affirmation and advice, I consult my tribe of international women whom I call friend-colleagues.

Turns out, I’m not alone in my observations, and from these conversations I’ve found many common threads running behind our propensity to needlessly apologize:

Why do we needlessly apologize?

“Sorry” minimalizes the blow of coming across as too direct, too powerful, too opinionated, which in men equates to confidence but in women is often scrutinized as aggressive or cold. 

  • True story: A friend with a passion for tennis, found herself apologizing to her opponent for a serve, not wanting to appear too competitive. Yes, too competitive, in a sport.

It lessens the risk of conflict or disagreement and reduces the chances that someone’s feelings will be hurt.

  • True story: A colleague apologized while giving feedback on a project for the tight deadline, as if putting some blame on herself would make the criticism more tolerable.

A group of colleagues sit with their laptops in a relaxed meeting environment.
If you’re giving a tight deadline or feedback that may be hard do take, don’t feel the need to start the conversation with an apology.

Women’s threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior meriting an apology is extremely small in comparison to male counterparts.

  • True story: Another colleague has observed her female colleagues giving up their seats, even in the front row, as if silently saying sorry for having felt entitled to such a prime position in a meeting.

But most often, it’s a filler word, said when we don’t know what else to say, coming out automatically even when an error or wrongdoing is not our fault.

  • True story: I apologized for being early to a meeting when a colleague showed up late, as if my being early had put undue pressure for his timely arrival.

Why do we need to stop?

The polite, agreeable, humility that I and other women often feel compelled to embody is what sociologist, professor, author, and self-described apology-hater Maja Jovanovic calls feminine modesty, or the tendency for women to underrepresent their accomplishments. And not only underrepresent their accomplishments, but credit others. “It really was a team-effort,” sound familiar?

This is hugely problematic, not only with regard to a woman’s self-confidence and potential for personal growth, but on a practical level, as Jovanovic points out, a manager can only hire one leader, not ‘the team.’ And they want the person that steps up and says, “This is what I’ve done. This is what I will bring to your organization.” They’re not interested in a person who shies away from ownership or whose ideas are prefaced with an apology: “Sorry, this might be silly,” “Sorry, this is could be too much,” “Sorry, to take up a few more minutes.”

Four tips to kick to the ‘sorry habit’

In order for ‘sorry’ to be a sincere apology seeking forgiveness for a true wrongdoing, we need to clean up the playing field where it’s casually thrown around.

Like any habit it’s at first hard to break, but as I’ve discovered, doing so is really quite simple. Here are four tips:

1. Replace with gratitude

A delayed email response? A bit late to a meeting? Instead of “sorry (insert long rambling excuse),” say “Thank you for your patience” or “Thank you for waiting.”

Reebok employees having a conversation during a business meeting | saying sorry
Allow your confidence replace apologies. Don’t be sorry if you don’t understand something immediately. Ask to discuss a topic again without self-depreciation.

2. Offer acknowledgement rather than remorse

Someone corrects your PowerPoint or offers you a better technique on the court. Don’t apologize for not being perfect straight out of the gate (I mean, who is?). Instead note their feedback, “Wow, great tip!” or “I appreciate you catching my mistake.”

3. Deliver an opinion/ask a question without self-deprecation

You’re on a team to contribute. Don’t diminish the value you can offer. Instead of “Sorry, I don’t know if this helps but…” or “Sorry, I’m not sure we should do that…,” be constructive. “I agree with you X should be more Y, but I believe we also need to consider Z…” And when you don’t understand something, chances are others don’t either. “I didn’t fully grasp what you mean, could you explain X in a bit more detail?”

4. Be polite but move on

Brushing past someone in a hall, reaching the door at the same time, or starting to speak at the same time as someone else is not an unforgiveable offence. It’s so incredibly mundane.

Most importantly, spread the word

Discovering that I wasn’t the only one concerned by over-apologizing, not only led to eye-opening discussions with both men and women, but also unearthed some additional inspiring/entertaining internet offerings. From TEDTalks to comedy sketches to a Vlog from the most unsuspecting of apology influencers, Barbie, there’s no shortage of compelling content. Below is a selection. Take a look and then cut the apologies!

Do you find yourself over apologizing? And are you changing when and what to apologize for? I’d be interested to hear your experience in the comments below.

5 COMMENTS

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by Jen 04.07.2019
Couldn't agree more Hannah! A great article and something I find myself doing all the time...sorry!

I hear myself saying it constantly - for no real reason. I need to train myself to stop...this is a great reminder and something I'll pass onto my team.

Thank you!
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by Hannah Jen 09.07.2019
I think that it's exactly it. "Sorry" shouldn't be erased completely. But when there's no reason for it, we have so many, many other words to choose from instead. Thanks for sharing : )
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by Audrey Shankles 09.07.2019
This is so great Hannah. I found myself saying sorry way too often a few years ago and I had implemented the exact same 4 tips you laid out. I loved reading your point of view here, not only did it reaffirm some of my own thoughts, but I like hearing your prospective.
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by Hannah Audrey Shankles 09.07.2019
Audrey, thanks a bunch for reading! I'm glad to hear that you found success following a similar approach. Since writing this others have pointed out "just" as a modifier to avoid as well (ie. "Can I just have 5min of your time?", etc.). Has this ever crossed your radar as well?
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by Gemina 30.07.2019
Great post and tips on how to substitute ‘sorry’ and regain one’s power.

In the past, I found myself doling out a ‘sorry’ just as easily as a ‘thank you’. Not anymore.
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