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No, you don't have to stop apologising – it is all about social context

A little reframing of how we think about saying sorry is all it takes.

No, you don't have to stop apologising – it is all about social context

(Art: The New York Times/Dan Salmieri)

At a parade last February, a woman standing next to me dropped her jacket in a puddle and cursed.

“Sorry,” I said.

She smiled and told me not to apologise, because it isn’t my fault.

But that’s not quite what I meant – I wasn’t taking responsibility. I was just sorry she had a wet jacket.

As simple as they seem, apologies are a complicated part of language. There's been a push in recent years, especially among women, to apologise less.

The knee-jerk reaction to be polite undermines your confidence, critics say, and underscores your own insecurity. But the language of apology isn’t quite this simple.

When I asked Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown, why some people apologise too much, she said apologising is a natural part of our language, and the idea of over-apologising is subjective.

“I think the question should be, ‘Why do we stigmatise apologies?’” Dr Tannen said. Put simply, maybe apologising isn’t as bad as we think.

By definition, an apology is an acknowledgment of offense or failure, but words don’t always mean their dictionary definition: Context matters, Dr Tannen said.

Words are defined in how they’re used and an apology is used in many different ways, so it serves many different functions.

Some apologies are meant to repair a relationship, like when you forget to pick up your friend at the airport.

Some apologies show respect, like when you submit a report to your boss and it’s a day or two late.

And some apologies are simply meant to smooth out a conversation, Dr Tannen added.

Gender and culture influence the way we use apologies, and sometimes what we say gets lost in translation.

“A typical thing for women is that people think they’re being overly accommodating when they apologise, even if they’re not using the apology that way,” Dr Tannen said.

Sounds like that’s what the woman in the wet jacket was thinking.

Madeleine Burry, a freelance writer living in New York, tried an experiment where she stopped apologising for a week.

“I searched my inbox for the word, ‘Sorry’, and it was a little horrifying,” Burry said.

She also downloaded a browser extension that warned her every time she typed an apology. “It was like a verbal tic, like saying, ‘Um’.

"It was something I would reach for when I wasn’t really sure what to say.”

While the experiment helped her rethink her communication style, Burry eventually found it unnecessarily taxing and deleted the browser extension.

“I get it. Maybe women apologise a lot,” she said. “But the counterpoint is, why don’t men apologise more? Maybe we should stop thinking of apologising as such a bad thing.”

A series of studies found that women apologise more than men because they report committing more offenses than men.

“This finding suggests that men apologise less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour,” the study’s researchers concluded.

“It takes a more serious offense for men to think of an apology as deserved,” Karina Schumann, one of the study’s researchers, said in an email.

In another study, Dr Schumann and her colleagues gave men and women various hypothetical offenses to commit.

Men rated the offenses as less severe and less deserving of an apology than women.

“These findings supported our suspicion that men apologise less often because they are less likely to think they’ve offended anyone,” Dr Schumann said.

In other words, women – and surely frequent apologisers in general – seem to be more empathic.

If you value empathy, this finding isn’t necessarily bad news. “I do believe that deliberately withholding all apologies, regardless of your gender, would not be beneficial,” Dr Schumann added.

Still, there are practical reasons you might want to curb an apology habit that have nothing to do with your purported lack of confidence.

In her book, Talking From 9 To 5, Dr Tannen writes about the problems women face when they apologise, particularly in the workplace.

For example, apologetic language can get in the way of negotiating, which requires assertiveness.

Even if you feel confident when you apologise, others may view it as weak. In that case, the apologetic language serves as a barrier between you and your request.

“I do actually apologise less in emails, especially in a work context,” Burry added about her default response to apologise in professional situations.

“I give my email a quick scan before I hit send and look for instances in which I’m unnecessarily apologising.

"I ask myself, ‘Is this performing a function or is it just making the email longer than it needs to be?’”

There’s an added problem: Women can also face backlash when they don’t apologise.

“Women are in a double bind. If we talk in a way that people think is self-effacing, like apologising a lot, or not talking up what we’re good at, or acting like we’re better than everyone else, we’re underestimated at work,” Dr Tannen said.

“But if you talk in a way that you’re confident, then you’re seen as too aggressive.”

The solution, Dr Tannen said, is to find a balance between your own communication style and how others may perceive that style.

“You’ll want to find a combination of what’s comfortable for you personally and the effect of the way you’re speaking depending on the context,” she said.

There are a few ways to do this.


Instead of cutting out your apologies, pay attention to how you feel when you apologise.

Does apologising make you feel weak or insecure? Do you apologise because you crave the approval of strangers?

If so, then you may choose to apologise less to see how the habit affects your self-esteem.

Like me, you might feel reasonably confident when you apologise. “Sorry” might simply be part of your politeness language, like saying, “Excuse me”.

Trying to apologise less might make you feel more undermined than simply being yourself.


Especially in workplace situations, you might want to note how your apologies come across to others, Dr Tannen suggests.

How do people react? Do they seem to take more advantage if you’re overly apologetic?

In some cases, if you want to establish boundaries with a peer or colleague, adjusting your language might be part of that.

That’s not to say apologising is bad, but words are powerful, and you may need to pull back in some situations.

“So if you keep getting told don’t apologise it’s not your fault, you might say, ‘I’m not apologising because I think I did something wrong, I’m apologising out of politeness,’” Dr Tannen said.


It feels good to not apologise. A study published in The European Journal of Social Psychology found that people who refused to apologise after a mistake felt more powerful and had higher self-esteem than those who did not refuse.

Refusing to apologise feels good, but that doesn’t make it healthy. “If you’ve done something that has major negative consequences for someone else, it’s important to acknowledge if you value the health of the relationship,” Dr Tannen said.

A 2016 study identified six traits of an effective apology. You must express regret, explain what went wrong, acknowledge responsibility, declare repentance, offer a solution and request forgiveness.


Dr Tannen also recommended communicating about your communication style.

If a friend approaches you about apologising too much, you could tell her that you don’t apologise to self-deprecate, but rather out of courtesy or politeness.

Dr Tannen suggested something like, “You know, I do say ‘I’m sorry’ a lot, but I’m not putting myself down. It just means I want to acknowledge the effect of what I did or what happened to you.”

If apologising out of politeness makes you feel bad about yourself, you should feel perfectly okay with biting your tongue, too.

Again, the solution is simply to understand your personal communication style while still being aware of how others may perceive it.

But even apologising out of politeness can serve a purpose.

“Asking people to stop apologising is like asking them to stop saying hello and goodbye,” Dr Tannen said.

“Those kinds of automatic courtesies are what make it possible to live together.”

By Kristin Wong © The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Source: New York Times/my