Ladies, why are we apologizing so much?

Written by Tiffany L. Adams, CELI President and Cincinnati Business Courier Columnist. Click here for published article.

Reader’s Question:  I am a female professional with a new leadership role and I don’t think I’m being taken seriously. Lately, I have become the brunt of routinely made office jokes regarding my “chronic apologizing.”  What’s wrong with saying you’re sorry to keep peace and what can I do to command more respect?

Business etiquette is about self-awareness and making favorable impressions.  It’s about presenting yourself with savviness, power, and control using effective communication skills.  Smooth communication allows you to be taken seriously and makes others around you comfortable. Some women feel the innate desire to be in everyone’s good graces, so they needlessly apologize at every turn thinking this will make everyone comfortable.  If there was a Guinness World Record awarded to the gender who apologizes the most, women would be crowned the reigning champions.  A clear gender gap exists where men are less inclined to say they’re sorry for insignificant things.  To clarify, I think most men are just as willing as women to apologize if they believe they have truly done something wrong.  Yet, men have a different measuring stick than women do of what defines “something wrong.”  Women are hardwired to strive for harmony, peace, and balance which leads to making empathetic apologies.  Benita Sahn, Albany News Channel 13 anchor, stated, “Women apologize for just being…it’s like we know we aren’t really entitled to say or do something so we preface it with an apology.”  This is where self-assurance, self-awareness, and self-restraint come into play and where women need to not ask for validation for their actions and words.  

Canadian research cited in the Wall Street Journal reveals that people apologize four times a week and, on average, we apologize more to strangers (22% of the time) and friends (46%) than our own family (7%).  That, in itself, is alarming.  Unfortunately, I’ve observed that excessive apologizing by women goes on far more frequently than four times a week.

What’s wrong with “auto-apologizing”?  It creates a perception of being inconsequential, weaker, and ignorable.  I’m not referring to when an apology is truly merited and responsibility should be taken.  I’m talking about when women needlessly apologize for sending a delayed email response, or bumping into a chair, or interrupting to ask a “silly question”, or even pre-recording their voicemail messages to begin with an apology for being unavailable!  Really?  

What can women do to stop the madness?  First, raise your self-awareness.  Try counting the number of times per week that you catch yourself unnecessarily apologizing.  Second, change your habit.  Try these alternatives:

Weaker response:                                                                     Strong response:

“So sorry for the delayed response.”                                  “Thank you for your patience with the timing of my                                                                                            reply.”

“I’m sorry I’m not here to take your call.”                           “I’m not available but your call is important to me.”

“I’m sorry to bother you again.”                                          “Sending a friendly reminder that those reports are due.

“Sorry, I interrupted you.”                                                    “Please continue.  I thought you were finished.”

“Sorry, we can’t purchase your product.”                            "The timing isn’t right for this year’s budget.”

“Sorry, is this seat open?”                                                     “Is this seat available?”

“Sorry, but I think you’re mistaken.”                                    “I think that is a matter of personal opinion. However, I respect your                                                                                                      viewpoint.”

Simply put, don’t be sorry.  Be strong.  Be exceptional.  Be a leader.