Remember when Naomi Osaka won the US Open women’s final against tennis star Serena Williams? While accepting her trophy onstage, Osaka apologized to spectators for her stunning upset.
That’s right—Osaka apologized for winning.
Whether or not you notice, it’s a real phenomenon: women apologize a lot. Even more than men do. It’s so prevalent that there are books, commercials, and comedy skits about it; even Mattel’s Barbie produced a vlog challenging women to avoid their “sorry reflex.”
But why does this happen? Is there some biological instinct for women to apologize?
Here’s What Science Says
According to two researchers from the University of Waterloo, it’s not that women are inherently more apologetic; it’s that men have a higher threshold for what counts as offensive behavior.
In other words, men are less likely to perceive an action as offensive—and this is the case regardless of whether they are the offender themselves or the recipient of said action.
The difference in perception of what constitutes offensive, apology-worthy behavior may be chalked up to how we raise boys and girls. Psychologist Stephen Hinshaw notes that young women face an “impossible set of standards”—for instance, being assertive, but only if it doesn’t upset anyone.
Put simply, women are socialized to be more empathetic. Whereas men are rewarded more for asserting themselves, women tend to be rewarded for taking care of others. This focus on empathy conflicts with things like competition and victory, making female winners—like Naomi Osaka—more concerned with the loser’s feelings.
What Happens When Women Over-Apologize
Consider all the times you’ve casually said “sorry” at home, in the workplace, or out and about. Maybe it sounded like this:
- Sorry for not getting back to you earlier.
- Sorry to bother you about…
- Sorry, could I get your help with something?
- I’m sorry, but do you mind doing me a favor?
- I’m sorry, could you repeat that?
Although it may be well-intended as a sign of respect or consideration, apologizing profusely has negative effects.
For starters, it undermines your authority and gives others the idea that you’re a pushover. Sometimes we apologize for things that aren’t our fault, like when someone else bumps into us, or for “bothering” someone to do their work. Apologizing for these instances can make you appear insecure.
To some, over-apologizing might even come across as annoying. Whether or not you actually want self-assurance, peers who hear “sorry” so often might perceive it as your way of asking for validation.
How to Stop Apologizing So Much
When it feels like second nature, how do you stop the urge to say “sorry” in uncalled for moments? Here are four ways to practice apologizing less.
- Stop and think. Though it feels reflexive to say sorry, try to catch yourself before it comes out. Ask yourself: what am I sorry for? If it’s something you have little or no control over, you shouldn’t apologize. Make it a practice to pause before speaking, which, aside from helping stop your apology habit, can also make you seem more approachable.
- Reframe the situation, and say “thank you” instead. Expressing gratitude can make a powerful substitute to sorry. For instance, rather than apologizing for a minor inconvenience, try saying, “Thank you for your patience.” A simple thanks is not only gracious but also allows you to maintain authority.
- Substitute “sorry” with “excuse me.” “Excuse me” functions like “sorry,” carrying all of its politeness but less of its regret. Instead of saying, “Sorry, I have a question,” try, “Excuse me, I’d like to ask…” (This doesn’t mean you should always use “excuse me” in place of sorry, though; it’s important that you still work on reducing how often you apologize.)
- Validate frustrations you have no control over. Ever feel compelled to apologize for problems that you didn’t cause? It usually comes out like “I’m sorry to hear that,” whether it’s an issue with parking or terrible weather. While this method of expressing sympathy may not seem to undercut you, remember that you weren’t responsible for the issue, so there’s no need to apologize. Instead, sympathize with your venting friend using language like, “That’s so frustrating to hear” or “I hate that that happened.”
Of course, you shouldn’t be unwilling to apologize, especially when it’s actually necessary. Some situations call for heartfelt apologies, which help to defuse tension and prevent further misunderstandings.
Just remember that saying sorry too much not only distorts your impression to other people but also wears away at your self-image. When kept to a minimum, though, apologies become all the more meaningful in conveying your sincerity.