A Day on the Golf Course, and Why Women should Stop Apologizing.

Do women apologize more?I recently spent a very pleasant afternoon on a local golf course with some good friends. Being a novice golfer, I missed many shots. I then apologized for missing shots and apologized for taking a longer time to complete my shots That is, until a couple of friends told me flat out to "Stop Apologizing!" They continued with, "Don't apologize; if you miss a ball, just hit again…" The truth is, I had no idea that I was so apologetic until that very moment.  After the game, I kept wondering if women tend to apologize more than men and, if so, what might this mean for us in our professional lives? I decided to research this a bit and here are my findings. 

Do women apologize more than men? The Answer: Yes, women tend to apologize more than men.

A recent Inside Amy Schumer sketch showed me that for many women, “Sorry” is a filler word that just won’t quit. In this sketch, the scene is set at a Females in Innovation conference and focuses on a panel of women who are “the top innovators in their fields”. The women on the panel all have very impressive resumes – a Nobel Prize winner, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a woman who invented a solar panel water filtration system and a woman who built a school for child soldiers. What begins with the female panelists apologizing for correcting the male moderator’s errors in introducing them, soon devolves into a constant succession of phrases like, “Sorry, I hate that." "Sorry, I wish I hadn’t said that.” “Sorry, is this coffee?" "Sorry, this is my fault.” The sketch is funny, but more so, it's sobering. It was slightly uncomfortable for me to watch because it feels all too familiar.

In fact, the The New York Times, Forbes, CNN and many other publications have done quite a bit of research on this and their overwhelming conclusion is: Yes, women do apologize more than men. It’s not that men are reluctant to admit wrongdoings, as their studies show, it’s just that they have a higher threshold for what they think warrants reparation. Women tend to be more concerned with the emotional experiences of others and in promoting harmony in their relationships. There's certainly nothing negative about having or expressing these concerns, but, could this be affecting our careers?

Over-apologizing can also impact your career. a study by Karina Schumann at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada shows that if you’re uttering “I’m sorry” all the time in a professional setting, it can negatively impact how you’re viewed by your peers and superiors and have a lasting impact on potential career growth. Because, Schumann states, saying sorry too much can negatively impact the perception and/or reputation of you as a strong leader.

In the article, Stop Saying Sorry at Work by Deborah Auerbach, Heather Neisen, HR manager at Technology Advice, states that constantly apologizing can harm your career more ways than one. First, apologizing all the time tends to make others think that you are not confident or not sure of your decisions, which can weaken your own ability to lead well. Second, apologizing too frequently can cause one to make decisions based on emotions and/or what others prefer instead of what is best for him or her. Finally, it can be a major cause of career burnout. 

This same article offers some helpful tips on How to stop the cycle of “I’m sorry”:

1. Become more of an active listener. Listen to the concerns that are being addressed and think about how they tie to the big picture. Respond strategically, which reduces the need to apologize. By doing this, you can process tense or stressful situations with a calmer approach and provide a logical solution.

2. If you know the topic in advance, rehearse stating your position without saying sorry.

3. Find a good ally at work. Ask him or her to be your “sorry buddy” and to point out to you, after the fact, that you’ve said it to help you become accountable. 

4. Resist the urge to respond with “I’m sorry”, pause, and restructure your message.

Based on my research, here are some additional guidelines I wrote to help myself stop apologizing:

  1. Be aware of empty or habitual apologies, especially for outcomes I have no control of. Instead, state the facts and offer a good path forward.

2.  If a situation truly warrants an apology, provide an apology along with a constructive corrective action.

3. Use alternative phrases to show politeness.

There is a discussion post in this same Women in STEM group on the topic where my colleague, , provides an additional article. Have you caught yourself in this same situation? How might we help each other overcome this habit? 

  • Thanks for sharing these tips Ling this is something I'm guilty of doing all the time.

  • Great post Ling, and thanks for linking to so much research!  Deborah Tannen (in her book about gendered conversation styles at work, Talking From 9 to 5) makes the distinction between apologizing as a recognition of understanding the other person's feelings, as in "i'm sorry [that happened]" and an admission of fault.  As you mentioned, the problem is in misunderstanding the meanings.  Tannen's books have been very illuminating to me to understand style differences and to try to reduce misinterpretation.

    For those who want external help to apologize less, there is a Chrome plug-in called Just Not Sorry (www.cyrusinnovation.com/.../) that underlines words like sorry that can diminish their message.  The creators discuss the app with Deborah Tannen on NPR: www.scpr.org/.../

  • Awesome post, Ling. Thank you for sharing!