Sorry, Not Sorry—Why Women Need To Stop Apologizing For Everything

The video might be selling shampoo, but its message hits close to home. Why are women saying "sorry" for everything?

It’s been called the "hardest word," but some women seem to use the word "sorry" as everything from a way to interject their thoughts into a conversation to a way of prefacing any request for help.

Yesterday, Pantene even released a video about how often women apologize in everyday situations. The video is part of the company's #shinestrong campaign which is part of Pantene's Shine Strong Fund in partnership with the American Association of University Women.

Apologizing unnecessarily puts women in a subservient position and makes people lose respect for them, says executive coach and radio host Bonnie Marcus. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Manhattan-based think tank, Center for Talent Innovation and author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Talent and Success, says using "sorry" frequently undermines our gravitas and makes them appear unfit for leadership.

It’s not like women don’t know it’s a bad habit. So, why do they do it?

Business consultant Kathryn D. Cramer, author of Lead Positive: What Highly Effective Leaders See, Say, and Do, says women are socialized from an early age to focus on relationships and nurturing. Any sign of strength can be off-putting, so they’re conditioned to soften communication that can be construed as assertive or aggressive. Apologizing before speaking—or in any situation where women must show strength or where there is potential for conflict—is one way of doing so.

Hewlett adds that workplace culture contributes to its use, too. In many cases, strong women need to find ways to temper their personalities or risk being called "rude," "abrasive," or even risk their jobs if they don’t find ways to soften others’ perception, she says. But saying "sorry" too often can be more career-killing than being disliked. So, it’s time to purge the word unless you really have something to be sorry about.

Tracking Unneeded Apologies.

Marcus suggests keeping a log of when you "sorry," what the situation was, and how you felt. Sometimes, "sorry" is just a verbal tic, but some usage patterns may indicate a situation or person who makes you feel insecure, she says. Being aware of those triggers and how they influence your language can help you be more vigilant in "changing your communication so you’re coming from a position of strength and equality," she says.

Trusted friends can help you break the habit by quietly letting you know when you’re using "sorry" inappropriately, Cramer says. Knowing that you’re under another’s watchful eye is also going to make you more aware of your speech, she says.

Find another phrase.

Sometimes, saying "sorry" is easier than thinking about the word you really want to say, or becomes a way of softening your words or opinion before they’re even out of your mouth, Cramer says. If either is the case, be more careful to choose the word or phrase you really mean to say.

"Start your statement with, ‘Let me say this…’ or some other word or phrase that reflects your meaning better than saying ‘sorry,’" she says.

Embrace silence.

Sometimes, instead of saying "sorry," it’s best to not say anything at all. Hewlett encourages women to embrace the power of silence. For her book, she interviewed Sallie Krawcheck, who lead the wealth management divisions of both Bank of America and Citi. Krawcheck buffered important statements with silence in order to give them more weight.

"She told me that, as a southern woman, she filled up silence with words because that’s how you make people comfortable—with chitter chatter—which diminished her voice. Using silence deliberately makes people uncomfortable, but not in an aggressive way," she says.

[Image: Flickr user butupa]

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23 Comments

  • Sara Smile

    "Trusted friends can help you break the habit by quietly letting you know when you’re using “sorry” inappropriately". I'm sorry, but aren't there more important things in the world to worry about than inappropriately saying I'm sorry?

  • Lauren Ringer

    After you use 'u' 'bitch' 'shitty' 'aint'... might want to think before you comment with your irrelevant use of so called "words."

  • Elizabeth Hanes

    I'm a recovering over-apologizer and appreciate the section where you discuss finding a new phrase to better convey your meaning, instead of starting with "sorry." I'm going to work on that. Thanks for a great article!

  • Paige Engelhardt

    I dunno. People tell me I overapologize/to stop apologizing all the time, but it makes me feel better to apologize even when I know that something isn't my fault or isn't a big deal. It's kind of a soothing mechanism, a way of acknowledging that something happened and processing it verbally.

  • Alison Williams

    I think that's the point. It's self-soothing, but it actually leads to self-affirming that you're doing something "wrong," just by being alive.

  • a6089457

    I'm a man and I say sorry for random stuff I do all of the time. It's not JUST women that do this, it's a way of being civil and polite for men and women alike.

  • This is such a great and pertinent piece. The unnecessary "sorry" is considered a 4-letter word in our studio. (And not the good kind of 4-letter word!) We are very conscious of how and when we say sorry, making sure to only use it when issuing a heartfelt apology vs. using it as a conversation filler. And likewise, it's something (along with "like" ... "like, when something is, like, hard to say...") we discuss with our team members.

    • Erica | Tinsel & Twine | @tinseltwine
  • Leigh Shulman

    I had an amazing driving instructor when I was 16 who taught me not to needlessly apologize. When I apologized for a mistake I made -- totally normal when you're learning something -- he told me to stick out my tongue. When I did, he grabbed it and refused to let go. "Don't ever apologize for no reason. Ever, " he said. "I don't care if you crash my car or worse. But don't ever apologize for no reason."

    I also learned not to stick out my tongue when someone tells you to.

  • Harold Clay

    Genius! Let's all stop apologizing since the thing that happened can't be undone anyway. We can add "I'm sorry" to the "ban bossy" campaign!

  • I like that attitude! Although we have mixed feelings about the "ban bossy" movement. We get the sentiment, but rather than demonizing the word "bossy" we should be correcting the people that insist being bossy is a bad things. As long as one is kind and smart, we think bossy girls can grow up to be the best boss ladies!

    • Erica | Tinsel & Twine | @tinseltwine
  • While I like the section about Embracing Silence, I have also recently read that in business settings men dominate conversation to a surprising degree, while women only speak a fraction of the amount, which can be to their detriment. How to we reconcile the two?

  • This is a sad truth. I have just recently found myself apologizing for everything at work, and the more you do it, the easier it gets. Gwen is right, we shouldn't have to apologize unless the situation calls for us to take ownership, and it certainly gets us nowhere careerwise. I had to ask myself - why? Why do I take responsibility for actions, even if they aren't wrong or my own? Something that stood out to me, that I believe plays into this, was an article in The Atlantic on confidence. Women lack confidence. And men, even ones that may not be as adept as women with the same title, have more of it; therefore, they overshadow the woman. I strongly believe confidence and this apologetic nature go hand in hand. It's something I've been working on. When I find myself typing up an email that starts or ends with an apology, I will write the whole thing up and then delete my apology. You don't have to be silent. You just have to eliminate the apology.

  • Steve Whetstone

    more likely than women being under confident is that men are allowed to be more overconfident. I see a lot of male overconfidence because it works for the short term to get agreement and support and is rewarded until/unless it's discovered. But men are getting by on false confidence and escaping the most of the negative consequences of their false confidence by using time and distractions if/when their confidence fails to be justified later. So Women have a built in handicap because they don't get to bluff as easily since they're kind of under the microscope for performance and the scrutiny is on if they're good enough and bluffing or false confidence works best when done by entrenched power (as in men).

    I guess I'm suggesting the problem is men un-knowningly promote the office culture to support overconfidence and encourage overconfidence as an acceptable side effect of a being a leader and normalize it when it should be viewed more seriously as a major flaw in a leader.

  • Jen Singer

    As my college soccer coach used to implore, "Stop apologizing!" He figured that if we did it in practice, we'd do it in a game, when we're supposed to be playing soccer. So what if you clock someone along the way? That's part of the game.

    I spent a decade coaching boys' soccer, and never once did I have to ask them to stop apologizing. They don't say they're sorry unless they've flattened someone and they're trying to avoid a red card.

    Seems we women could all learn something from boys' soccer.