When you’re a kid, the message about apologies is clear: when you’re wrong – or even if you hurt someone by mistake – say you’re sorry. The problem is, as kids grow into adults, one half of the human race seems to retain the message … while the other half reserves their apologies for special occasions. (You know which is which.) Why, exactly, do women feel that they must apologize all the time, and how can they curb the impulse, especially at work?
(Photo Credit: AK Rockefeller/Flickr)
There are all sorts of theories about why women default to apology, from feminist (“it’s the patriarchy”), to psychological (“it’s low self-esteem”), to self-blaming (“it’s low self-esteem … and all your fault, stupid”). Some even argue that apologizing can be a positive thing – after all, how are you supposed to calm everyone down and get folks thinking constructively, if you’re not willing to smooth things over?
Debate the merits of the big “I’m sorry” all you want, but it’s clear that women apologize even when it isn’t in their best interests … and in a world that regards women as too aggressive when they try to negotiate salary, but pays them 77 cents on the dollar when they don’t, well, we need to figure a few things out.
Sloane Crosley at The New York Times has one theory about why women over-apologize:
…[W]e haven’t addressed the deeper meaning of these “sorrys.” To me, they sound like tiny acts of revolt, expressions of frustration or anger at having to ask for what should be automatic. They are employed when a situation is so clearly not our fault that we think the apology will serve as a prompt for the person who should be apologizing.
It’s a Trojan horse for genuine annoyance, a tactic left over from centuries of having to couch basic demands in palatable packages in order to get what we want. All that exhausting maneuvering is the etiquette equivalent of a vestigial tail.
To stop, women should:
1. Understand what they want.
This is harder than it sounds. Women’s equality has come a long way, but little girls are still raised to be “good,” while boys are taught to “win.” Sometimes, the biggest struggle is overcoming that inner voice that says that it’s not nice to want things people don’t want to give you.
2. Nix the words, “I’m sorry” … at least for a while.
Women don’t need to steamroll over everyone in their path or refuse to accept responsibility, but they can be accountable without being abject.
Practice taking a deep breath before you respond. You’ll cut out those knee-jerk apologies that diminish your position without strengthening the social relationship or accomplishing your personal goals.
3. Remember that women deserve what they want, just as much as men do.
Women might have to have to express their goals differently – for instance, by tying salary negotiation to a communal benefit for the team – but that doesn’t mean that they’re less deserving of that raise, promotion, or project than their male colleagues.
Women, keep that essential fact at the back of your mind. If you forget, so will your colleagues.
Tell Us What You Think
Have you managed to stop apologizing constantly? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.