My sorrys are chronic and most often unwarranted. I express contrition for things like lightly brushing someone’s shoulder on the subway, for accidentally dropping my own pen or wallet on the floor, for taking a day to respond to an email, for declining a social invitation, for sneezing. The list, literally, could scroll on and on. It’s a tick I could never seem to kick.
Then I saw my 6-year-old daughter, Marty, echoing my effusive sorrying and decided I needed to pinpoint what underlies the rapid-fire impulse. Is it a knee-jerk response to all the destructive gender imperatives that demand women prioritize agreeability, adaptability, and excessive niceness at a cost to their own self-respect and well-being? Does it spring from a pathological well of trauma? Or from our greater capacity for empathy? Could it be a simple desire to facilitate and maintain happy social relations? Ultimately, I hoped that by critically questioning it, I’d begin to understand how destructive it is. Turns out the answer is more complex than I realized. It could be very damaging or not at all—it all depends on why you’re saying sorry and how you feel about it.
Despite all the campaigns in recent years urging women to stop with the cascades of contrition, like Amy Schumer’s sketch poking fun at women’s reflexive apologies, Pantene Pro V’s “Sorry, Not Sorry” commercial, and Gmail’s Chrome Extension “Just Not Sorry,” which trolls your emails for “words that undermine your message,” Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen, PhD, cautions against over psychoanalyzing our reflexive sorrys because more often than not, they aren’t apologies. Tannen, who authored You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, calls them “conversational rituals,” that do not reflect our internal mental state, meaning we don’t really feel sorry or culpable.
She says they’re akin to saying “How are you?” which is not meant to elicit a “full medical report,” she jokes. “‘Sorry’ can also be a very gracious and socially expected and accepted way to transition in a conversation: ‘Oh, sorry, I was going to something else,’ or ‘Oh, sorry to interrupt,’” she says. “You have to be cautious not to assume that everything is a deep psychological thing,” she warns.
Karina Schumann, PhD, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who studies the function of apology, as well as its psychological underpinnings, agrees that a unilateral indictment of sorrying is not in order—nor does her research show that women apologize that much more than men. Her study of 33 women and 33 men showed that after 12 days of chronicling their perceived offenses and apologies, women offered more apologies than men (217 versus 158), but taking into account the total number of offenses they reported, men and women apologized for the same proportion of offenses.
In another study, which included 63 female and 57 male undergraduates, Schumann asked the participants to imagine three hypothetical scenarios where they had offended a friend and asked them to rate the likelihood that they’d issue an apology for the various trespasses. While she found a difference between men and women, it was small: On a 7 point scale, women reported an average likelihood of apologizing of 6.58 (versus men's 6.23), but the difference seems to extend from women seeing the imagined transgressions as more serious. “I found that women do apologize more often than men, but it doesn’t seem to be driven by men actively withholding apologies when they think they’ve done something wrong,” says Schumann. "Rather, it seems to [stem] from a perceptual difference in whether or not something is severe enough to deserve an apology."
The psychology behind that perception “is very complex,” she says, adding that apologies are a “polite strategy” and an efficient way to “resolve conflict.” While Schumann wonders whether women’s effusions of “sorry” are reflective of a greater orientation toward empathy and sociability, she’s not aware of any research that looks at whether it’s symptomatic of a self-effacing tendency to (linguistically) dwarf ourselves to make others feel bigger and better.
Last year, however, the Depression Project, a mental health advocacy group informed by clinicians and research, shed light on the sadness and pain that resides in some who over-apologize. In a post the organization published titled, “Reasons Some May Constantly Apologize," which actress Viola Davis, a vocal opponent of women’s propensity to over-apologize, amplified on Instagram, it enumerated a list of causes that resonated with nearly one hundred thousand of Davis's fans:
“They have depression and feel like they’re bringing the mood down.”
“They feel like they’re constantly in the way.”
“They feel like a burden and can’t see the good in themselves.”
“They have anxiety and worry they’re doing something wrong.”
“They feel like you’re too good for them and they fall short of what they believe you deserve.”
“They have been mentally abused and consequently believe they’re always in the wrong.”
“They want to avoid confrontation at all costs (as in the past it’s escalated quickly).”
The author of Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety, and More Susan Heitler, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Israel, thinks the messaging is on point, although she’d expand it to guide people toward self-probing questions to help them pinpoint the origins of their need to apologize swiftly and frequently. Heitler emphasizes that the problem with always ceding our authority to another in this way is that it can possibly breed depression. “Depression results when you’ve caved or folded on an issue that’s important to you. It takes the air out of your balloon so you’re small. You feel powerless and hopeless,” she explains.
Whatever the psychological reasons compelling us toward constant contrition, there’s a real downside to hyper-apologizing in the workplace for both men and women, according to Schumann’s research: “It could come with some competence costs, so they’re seen as less competent, less assertive, less agentic, and less of a potential leader if they’re apologizing for all kinds of things that they’re not actually responsible for,” Schumann explains.
Tannen adds that women suffer a “double bind” if they don’t speak in ways that are expected of them. “A double bind is a situation where if you have two demands you have to fulfill, but anything you do to fulfill one actually violates the other,” she says, a persistent challenge for women in the workforce. “If we talk in ways expected of women, we’re liked, but underestimated. If we talk in ways expected of a person in authority, we’re respected, but are seen as too aggressive,” she explains. Tannen recounts the story of a woman executive who scaled back her apologies at work and was judged harshly for it. Once she peppered them back into everyday utterances, she was viewed more favorably.
Learning to apologize well, according to Schumman’s research, averts the negative fallout of over-apologizing. “Even if you’re apologizing a lot, it’s okay; you won’t get that competence hit if you’re doing it effectively."
Schumann’s breakdown of an impactful apology includes three core components:
Express your apology with sincerity.
Show remorse with a clear, heartfelt formulation, such as “I’m sorry” or “I feel terrible.”
Assume responsibility for your mistake.
Take ownership of the way you’ve misstepped by directly articulating your transgression. “I’m sorry for the way I said that” or “I’m sorry for being late.”
Come up with a fix for the future.
Finally, propose a repair or fix to show the offended party that you’ll work on it. “I’ll slow down and watch my tone in the future” or “I’ll leave earlier to be sure I’m on time next time.”
Lastly, Schumann proposes five tips to ensure we’re apologizing from a place of awareness and strength:
Take a “sorry” inventory.
Keep an “apology diary,” or reflect on all the times you’ve expressed contrition at the end of the day and notice the pattern of apology that emerges.
Ask yourself questions.
Schumann proposes asking yourself: “What was the situation? Was I responsible? How would it have looked if I hadn’t apologized? What was my goal in apologizing? How would I have felt if I hadn’t apologized?”
“We’re too entrenched in our own bias or perspective, so ask a few people’s opinions about whether they’d have apologized in the same situation,” she suggests.
Once you determine the kinds of sorrys you’re comfortable withholding, you can adapt your apology protocols accordingly.
Both Schumann and Tannen agree that it’s important to look at each “sorry” in its own context (i.e., read the room) to determine if one is warranted. “I always like to say there’s no right or wrong here. There’s no objective situation that necessarily deserves an apology,” Schumann says.