The Sorry State of Women and Workplace Apologies
You might have heard or read that women apologize more than men. Or maybe you’re not aware of how much you say sorry throughout the day. Start counting your sorries, and you’ll soon realize it’s true. There are myriads of articles and research studies about this topic.
“Before we women even open our mouths, our words feel like an imposition rather than a contribution, and thus we feel we need to say “I’m sorry” to cushion the impact. In fact, sometimes it seems like women apologize for just plain existing.”
- Sydney Beveridge, Huffington Post
So why do we apologize more? The short answer is that women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.
According to a 2010 study published by the Association of Psychological Science, women apologize more than men, but they also reported committing more offenses than men. That correlation makes sense. If you feel like you’ve somehow done something offensive, a normal person would then apologize for that action.
As a UX Designer, I’m a problem solver. So let’s think about this from a UX perspective and figure out what the problem is.
Saying sorry too much isn’t the problem.
The problem is that we think we’re being offensive when we’re not. Maybe we’re not actively considering our behaviors offensive, but I guarantee you we’re doing it subconsciously. By over-apologizing, we minimize the impact of our position and our words. Now that we know the problem is thinking we’re being offensive, it seems rational to rethink what constitutes offensive behavior.
I put together this guide to help us work on our over-apologizing habits.
Things That Are Offensive
Here are a few examples of things that are offensive. You should apologize for these things.
Stealing someone’s food.
Being extremely rude.
Not replacing the toilet paper.
A perpetual problem at Nebo.
Things That Are Not Offensive
Here are a few examples of things that are not offensive. You should not apologize for these things.
Asking a question.
Even if you think you should know the answer. Even if you have to stop someone else in the middle of their busy day to get an answer you need.
Having a dietary restriction.
“Is Pepsi okay?”
“No, sorry, I’m team Coke forever.” “No.”
“Sorry I just really had a bad day.” Stop apologizing for that! Eat the ice cream and own it.
Sharing an opinion.
“Sorry, but I’d just like to add my thoughts here…” Having an opinion isn’t something to be sorry for. Whether you’re adding on to someone else’s idea, respectfully disagreeing, or recommending a different approach, your opinion is one of the most valuable assets you have in the workplace. You should be confident in it — not sorry for it.
Why have we been apologizing for these types of things?
I did a search in my email for “sorry” and found that we women of Nebo have been apologizing for things that aren’t offensive behavior. Here are just a few examples. One of these is from me 🙈.
Things that are not your fault.
Starting today, try this.
It’s overwhelming to change a habit. We need bite-sized actions to work on. Realistic goals. Lest we fail to stop saying sorry in one day and then have to apologize to the world for failing.
Start today. You can’t take action yesterday or tomorrow. You can only take action today.
Ask yourself this: Did I do something mean?
If you did something mean or truly offensive, apologize for it.
Otherwise…start by trying to do these two things.
1. Omit “sorry” from emails and messages. Offer facts and solutions.
This is the low-hanging fruit, because you get to reread before you send. Here are a few ways you can rephrase and empower your words and actions.
“Sorry for forgetting the attachment.” → “In my last email, I didn’t include the attachment. Here it is. Have a great weekend!”
“Sorry for missing that.” → “You’re right, I didn’t think through that aspect. I’ll take a look again and get something back to you by end of day.”
2. Replace “sorry” with “thanks for…”
This one is a little trickier because it’s usually verbal, but it’s still very attainable. Try to catch yourself before saying sorry for doing something and turn it into a statement of gratitude related to the other person’s action. This flips the situation from “fault” on your part to being appreciative of someone else’s behavior. Ultimately, this way of thinking can help improve your mental sanity and reduce your guilt complex.
“Sorry I’m late.” → “Thanks for waiting on me.”
“Sorry I need to cram in here.” → “Thanks for making room.”
“Sorry for the delay.” → “Thanks for being patient.”
You might be saying sorry because you're trying to be polite. That sentiment is perfectly understandable and acceptable. I'd still encourage you to think about how and why you're saying sorry, because there are other word choices. Regardless of why you're saying "sorry," by using that word you're speaking fault into being. But there are many other ways to communicate politely that don't add to your subconscious guilt cycle. Try it. I think you'll like it.
And may our apologies forever be with purpose.