Sorry Not Sorry: Unpacking the Apology Gap

by Maggie Doyle | 9/25/19 2:05am

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by Clara Pakman / The Dartmouth

During two separate performance reviews, bosses have told me to stop apologizing. And both times, without a hint of irony or intent of rebellion, I instinctively responded, “I am so sorry.” 

It is safe to say that I, like so many other women, am a chronic over-apologizer. Intuitively, most people can tell you that women apologize more often than men do, but research confirms it. Two studies published in Psychological Science concluded that, one, women apologize more often than men, and, two, men are equally as willing as women to apologize, but they have a higher threshold for what offenses warrant an apology. 

This so-called “apology gap” between men and women is not new nor a secret. This week, I attempted to record the number of times I said sorry and the contexts in which these apologies occurred. I failed at keeping track of every apology, but by a conservative estimate, I apologized at least 10 times a day, or 70 times total this week. 

Kathy Caprino, a women’s career coach, wrote in an article for Forbes, “[Apologizing] seems to have become a way that women can appear more accommodating, less forceful and less strident in asking for what they want and sharing what they believe. It’s a way for women to ask for what they want but couch it in terms that make it appear less of a demand and more of a soft ask.” 

I apologized to the Dartmouth Dining Services worker who put the wrong dressing on my salad, to someone who bumped into me in Collis and to my friend after showing him four pictures of a dog. 

People apologized to me for having dinner plans, needing to be let into my dorm because of the new building access restrictions and showing up to a meeting too early. None of these offenses really warranted apologies, and all were by women.

I also apologized to a friend struggling with adjusting to her long-distance relationship. Though I knew I was in no way at fault for her suffering, I felt compelled to be the proxy apologizer. No one in the situation was really at fault, least of all me, but someone was upset and I therefore I felt like someone should be apologizing. 

Phyllis Chesler, a psychologist, explained in an interview for The Oprah Magazine that women are quick to apologize and back down, even if they don’t really mean to. She attributes women’s frequency of apologizing to the fact that we bond deeply with others and are usually afraid to lose them, so, instead, we just say sorry and move on. 

Hidden within these needless apologies are the times I truly am sorry. I apologized this week for forgetting about a lunch with a friend, which is something I genuinely felt sorry for, and rightly so. I wonder how much more weight “sorry” would have held in that situation if not for the absurd quantity of automatic apologies I dole out ingenuinely. I fear my nine other apologies a day detract from the significance of the one apology that I truly mean.

Here is where I face the truth and confess that none of this information is news to me. I cannot claim ignorance or that my behavior is entirely subconscious. Though I was ashamed of how many times I apologized on a daily basis this week, I was not surprised by it. I have known for years that I over-apologize, and that I do so more often out of fear of being perceived as abrasive than genuine remorse. In the moment, understanding the consequences, I apologize to soften what I’m saying for fear of being considered aggressive or arrogant. My quest for likability trumps my feminist sense of righteousness, and the cycle continues.  

This phenomenon will not self-correct and, in fact, may be worsening. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, women’s leadership consultant Sally Helgesen noted the trend in our culture of people routinely apologizing for things out of their control, which turns into an endless cycle of hearing an apology and then repeating it ourselves.  

Writing down apology after apology this week convinced me that it is cowardice to resign to habit and fear and this flaw of society. I understand how difficult it can be to kick the “I’m sorry” habit, but the first step is awareness. Tracking how many times I said “sorry” this week helped me be more conscious and less automatic about apologizing. I’ve tried to find ways to break my habit since starting this article, and some of my favorites so far include the “Just Not Sorry” Gmail plug-in that warns email writers whenever they use apologetic language that undermines their messages. I also like the concept of leading with gratitude instead of apologizing. To me, saying “Thank you for listening” instead of something like “Sorry for ranting” seems a lot more powerful.  

Women are already fighting an uphill battle to be heard and respected. Adding needlessly apologizing to the mix makes the battle that much harder to fight. Instead of leading our lives with the word “sorry,” perhaps “sorry, not sorry” is a better approach.