In Love and War

Rethinking the way we treat ourselves.

When 'I'm Sorry' is Too Much

Do you over-apologize?

"I'm sorry" is infamous for its inadequacy. It often seems flippant, insincere, or incomplete, as in "I'm sorry you feel that way" or "I'm sorry, but...". Wayward public figures are notorious for inadequate apologies, especially those that involve a failure to own up to wrongdoingSome argue that a full apology requires many more elements than just those two words, such as acceptance of responsibility, an expression of genuine remorse, an offer to make amends, and an excuse-free explanation.

Heartfelt apologies can go a long way in dissolving hostility, encouraging forgiveness, and mending damaged relationships. But they are not always easy to come by. It can be difficult to admit being wrong (we are well-equipped with psychological defenses and self-serving biases to protect us from facing the possibility that we messed up), and it can be scary to make oneself vulnerable to the possibility of rejection, since an apology, no matter how heartfelt, does not always elicit forgiveness.

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On the other hand, sometimes apologies come too easily and too frequently, as when we apologize for things that are clearly not our fault, not in our control, or otherwise unworthy of apology. Examples include apologizing for being hurt by someone else's offense, apologizing for being over-sensitive, apologizing when someone else bumps into you, and apologizing for apologizing.

Research suggests that women may be more prone to over-apology than men. A recent set of studies conducted by Karina Schumann and Michael Ross found that female participants apologized more in their daily lives than male participants. They also found that women reported committing more offenses than men, and this difference fully accounted for the apology frequency finding. In other words, men apologized for the same proportion of the offenses that they believed they had committed--they just didn't report committing as many offenses. 

In a second study, the researchers found further support for the idea that men might have a lower offense threshold than women. Participants were asked to evaluate the severity and apology-deservingness of a recalled offense and three hypothetical offense scenarios (i.e., slacking on a joint project and thus burdening a friend, snapping at a friend when grumpy, and accidentally waking a friend at 3am the night before a job interview). As expected, female participants perceived all of the scenarios as more severe and thus more deserving of apology than male participants.

The offense threshold hypothesis seems like a polite way of saying that men can be a bit oblivious. Importantly, though, male participants in the second study also seemed oblivious to the severity of others' offenses, which led the researchers to speculate that men might simply be less attuned to social offenses in general, while women may be more socially attuned. Another way to interpret the results is that women may sometimes be over-attuned, apologizing for perceived offenses that other people do not find offensive or even notice. It may just come down to subjective judgement--that is, neither gender is right or wrong. But sometimes social attunement can cross a line into over-apology and become self-destructive. If you suspect you may be an over-apologizer, here are some ideas for keeping your apologies in check. 

1. Say "thank you" instead. When your roommate or significant other does the dishes, rather than apologizing for not having done them yourself (which just burdens them with the need to reassure you), express your gratitude (which makes them feel happy and appreciated, and probably more apt to voluntarily do the dishes again later). This only applies, of course, when you generally do your share of the chores--if your roommate is in a huff because your never help out, thanking them for what they really should not have had to do may only annoy them further.

2. Save it. Saying sorry too much can trivialize the act of apology, making the important ones carry less weight. Don't cry wolf--save it for when you really need it, and mean it.

3. Try not to mess up in the first place. Easier said than done, of course. But if you know you have a (preventable) bad habit that negatively affects other people, better to try to avoid doing it in the first place, or at least avoid repeating it, rather than just apologizing after the fact.

4. Know where to draw the line. Apologize for your role in a negative event, but leave it at that. If you’re someone who likes to make amends and resolve conflict right away, it may be tempting to apologize for more than your share just to smooth everything over. But doing this can lead you to feel resentful and can let others off the hook too easily.

5. Embrace your imperfections. You don't have to apologize for having a bad hair day, for spilling on your shirt, or for needing three attempts to parallel park. 

6. Get support. If you are racked with guilt and shame even when you've done nothing wrong, professional support (http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/prof_search.php) may be helpful for addressing underlying self-worth issues or a history of trauma.

Reference:

Schumann K, & Ross M (2010). Why women apologize more than men: gender differences in thresholds for perceiving offensive behavior. Psychological science, 21 (11), 1649-55 PMID: 20855900

A different version of this post previously appeared on Psych Your Mind.

Juliana Breines, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis University.

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