Proper apologies have three parts: 1) What I did was wrong. 2) I feel bad that I hurt you. 3) How do I make this better? – Randy Pausch
Sorry this took so long to write….I usually write my summaries within a week of the event, it’s now been a month. [But] December was so hectic! Between school, sports, gifts (with supply chain delays), family get-togethers and trips (with COVID rising). Teachers, bus drivers, and all other important people I wanted to thank during the holiday season with a little something. Holiday luncheons, dinners, and the endless wrapping!
Now let me scrap that beginning - that is echoing in my mind - and apply what I learned during my conversation with Professor Maja. Here goes:
Last month I had an amazing conversation with Professor Maja.
Period. Simple, accurate, informative and to the point. (Quite honestly, freeing!). I’m now going to continue writing keeping this in mind…
Professor Maja is a sociologist, author and TEDx speaker. She describes herself as a confidence-builder and an apology-hater, as she is fascinated by the habit many women frequently exhibit when relating to others: apologizing.
So for starters, why are we singling out “women” when it comes to apologizing? Is it that women are just better at it? …
Despite the widely accepted belief that women apologize more than men, there is little systematic evidence to support this stereotype. Studies (1) have been conducted to understand whether gender differences in apology behavior exist and, if so, why. Findings suggest that men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes an offensive behavior.
“Findings suggest that men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes an offensive behavior.”
In one of the studies, participants were asked to rate imaginary and recalled offenses. The result was that men rated the offenses as less severe than women did. These different ratings of severity predict the judgment of whether an apology is warranted, which explains why women seem to apologize more frequently than men. It’s a matter of what we, as women, constitute as an action that is apology-worthy.
Prof. Maja highlighted some relatable examples when illustrating the tendency in women to over-apologize. For example, when asking a question in a meeting or in a larger group; how many times have we heard the question prefaced by the following comment: “sorry to interrupt, I have a [dumb] question, but” or “sorry, my question is really long” or simply “sorry, I have a question…” WHY SORRY?
How about this other example, we’re drowned in daily to-do’s, and we finally get a moment to reply to an email/text we received earlier in the day. How many times have we started by stating the following “Sorry, I didn’t/couldn't see/reply to your email/text earlier …” WHY SORRY? Unless an inordinate amount of time has gone by, and we’ve clearly neglected an expected response and therefore impacted someone else in the process, there is no real reason to apologize.
The risk we run into with saying “sorry” so often is that it loses its meaning when it’s needed to truly comfort or apologize to another person.
I found it very interesting when Prof. Maja described the difference between apologizing and over-apologizing, stating that the latter, albeit well-intentioned, is done in an automated, often mindless manner. Quite the opposite of when a true apology is ensued. When we find ourselves wanting to truly apologize to someone it is far from automated or mindless, we tend to think and re-think it, how are we going to say it? What’s the best choice of words to express our regret? When is the right moment? It tends to make us feel a bit unsettled, and that feeling usually doesn’t subside until after we have followed through with our apology.
There are a myriad of reasons we can speculate on as to why women tend to categorize more behaviors as apology-worthy. Historically social and cultural constructs such as women being taught - tacitly or explicitly - not to be too bold or too opinionated? It could also reside in response to upbringing or past experiences, that presents itself under a general people-pleasing personality. A heightened fear of confrontation, a way to soften the delivery of a dissenting opinion, or in an effort to be “a nice and/or polite person”? The reasons are so many, and so complex and intertwined that that alone merits an entire conversation.
Regardless of the reasons why many of us do this, cultivating the awareness of how many times a day we say “sorry” and subsequently actively engaging in the exercise of modifying this habit is quite empowering. I encourage you to give it a try.
A forewarning that this is not a quick transition. For those of us who overuse the word “sorry” it’s quite ingrained, thus it will take a while to even realize when or how much we do it. In that same vein, it will also take time to replace this pattern, they say it takes minimum 14 days to set in a habit right?! So a little patience and self-compassion will go a long way in this transformation.
That being said, based on the sage advice given by Prof. Maja and some personal Google research, I’ve compiled a cheat list of quick replacements that I have found personally helpful:
I'm sorry that I just vented to you
Thank you for listening and letting me be vulnerable
I'm sorry to break this to you
You're not going to like hearing this or this may be hard to hear
I'm so sorry I don't have this to you yet
Thank you for your patience as we/I navigate XXX, you will have it by XYZ date
I'm sorry I’m late
Thank you for waiting for me
I'm sorry for being slow or farther behind
Thank you for waiting
I'm sorry for the late response
Thank you for your patience
I’m sorry this didn’t work out
That didn't go as well as planned, but I got this. Let me go to work/Let me try this other option
I’m sorry, but I don’t agree
Let’s look at this from another angle
I’m sorry I didn’t do this right
Can you give me feedback on how I can do this differently
I'm sorry you're going through this
That sounds like it was really hard for you
I’m sorry to interrupt
Is now a good time for a quick question/to talk?
Sorry, I forgot
Thank you for reminding me
I’m sorry I’ve been so needy
Thank you for being there for me
I’m sorry I can’t make it/attend
I’m sorry for messing up
Thanks for being patient with me
I’m sorry to ask for another favor
Thank you for helping me out
I’m sorry I can’t help/participate
Thank you for thinking of me
I’m sorry for talking about my problems so much
Thank you for listening to me
I’m sorry I made a mistake
Thank you for pointing out my mistake
I’m sorry for being so emotional
Thank you for supporting me
I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that
Could you repeat that point?
I’m sorry, I have a [dumb] question
Could you [further] clarify
I’m sorry that I have been distant
Thank you for being understanding
Sorry, could you please help me
Excuse me, could you please help me
Sorry! (when bumping into someone)
I'm sorry for saying sorry
Thank you for understanding that I have this habit, I’m working on it!
I’m sorry my emails are always so long, but…
No! Wait….how about:
Thank you for reading up until this point, I learned so much from my conversation with Prof. Maja and wanted to share all of it with you. Changing this language has a positive impact on the way we portray ourselves and is personally empowering.
I hope you found reading this as interesting and exciting as it has been for me to write it for you.
For more on Professor Maja’s work:
Book: Hey Ladies, Stop Apologizing ... and Other Career Mistakes Women Make