“Sorry for being annoying,” “sorry for being so excited,” “sorry for bothering you,” “sorry for spamming you,” “sorry!” Sound familiar? If not, welcome to the top phrases employed by a serial over-apologizer (yours truly). It’s not a habit I’m proud of; given the chance, I would erase this trait in a snap. But it takes work and painful self-awareness to change a habit, especially when it’s one as sneakily intrusive as over-apologizing. This phenomenon is a recurrent social problem, including at Columbia, and especially among women. To reach one’s full potential and reclaim the meaning of the word “sorry,” we need to shed the habit of over-apologizing.
Perhaps the weirdest aspect of my over-apologizing is how much it clashes with the rest of my personality. It truly feels like I have multiple personalities. One is confident, relatively happy, and a proud feminist. The other is self-conscious, despite my noticeably loud laugh and easygoing demeanor. Through conversations and self-reflection, I’ve started to piece together the reasons behind my fragmented behavior. I often find myself worrying about whether people appreciate me. As a result, I over-apologize to avoid conflicts with people, and sometimes to make them like me. On top of all that, I’m somewhat of a people pleaser, a perfectionist, and more afraid of making mistakes than I’d like to think.
By saying sorry when you don’t need to, you are degrading yourself. You’re putting yourself in situations where you give others the opportunity to mistreat you and abuse your over-apologizing. Perhaps you’re even avoiding conflict to an unhealthy degree.
The fact that women often tend to be the ones over-apologizing is part of a broader, systemic cultural and social issue. Women are usually taught as children to be nice and polite, leading some to even start their sentences or questions in class with “sorry,” automatically creating or accentuating a sense of hierarchy between them and their professor or addressee. Meanwhile, men are typically taught from an early age that they should feel free to loudly and clearly state what’s on their mind, as a sign of the strong leadership that is desired in and expected from them. A study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2010 found “that women offer more apologies than men do because women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.” Sloane Crosley, in a 2015 New York Times op-ed, disagreed with this study, instead arguing that women over-apologize because they use the term “sorry” as an alternative to expressing their anger or frustration—for example, when dealing with noisy neighbors. Ultimately, I agree with Crosley’s conclusion that women need to say what they really mean by their “sorry.” Taking this leap will lead to more women unflinchingly and honestly saying what’s on their mind. It will also tear the patriarchal fabric of socializing in general.
The next time you want to say “sorry,” take a minute to think about exactly what you’re apologizing for, and why. Have you offended someone by being rude or insensitive? Have you forgotten something important? Have you bumped into someone, and truly determined that you are the offender and not the victim? Unless the answer to such questions is “yes,” stop over-apologizing, or avoid hopping on this terrible bandwagon in the first place.
Last year, a good friend of mine shared a useful tip from another over-apologizer: Say “thank you” instead of “sorry.” Remember the phrases enumerated at the start of this article? Imagine what would happen if you replaced the word “sorry” with “thank you.” I’d wager that you would agree with me that saying “thank you for accepting me,” “thank you for understanding,” “thank you for listening” is much better than over-apologizing.
So whatever your situation is, stop over-apologizing. Power the hell up, stand up for yourself and say everything with meaning, purpose, confidence, and strength. Give others space to apologize to you. Be proud, even if you might not be saying the “right” or the smartest thing. We’re at Columbia to learn and grow, not to be “well-behaved” or to act to the point of demeaning ourselves, becoming our worst enemy. And if you don’t find yourself in the same situation but notice that someone else over-apologizes, tell them it’s unnecessary. Because I am thankful to those who have told me to stop over-apologizing, and who have encouraged me to appreciate and respect myself more. Only a couple of weeks ago, I witnessed a professor respectfully say, “You don’t need to apologize” to a female classmate who had apologized several times for misunderstanding his question or not answering it fully. The professor’s comment empowered my classmate, and gave us all, especially the women, the green light to unhesitatingly jump into discussions, thereby enhancing the equality and richness of class dynamics.
Learning to measure the weight of the word “sorry” is important, not just for you here and now, but also later in life, as it will influence your ability to assert yourself in front of others. This will also make the word “sorry” more meaningful by reducing its misuse. One should never apologize for stating and sharing an opinion, a thought, a question. Doing the latter is the only way to engage in conversations and verbal fencing matches with people. And one should never apologize for being oneself. Reclaim the power of your apology. Reclaim the power of your speech. Reclaim the power you hold as an individual.
Thank you for reading.
The author is a junior in the dual BA program with Sciences Po studying political science and human rights. She is an associate editorial page editor for Spectator.
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