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Why Women Over-Apologize: How and Why To Stop It!

Stop apologizing like you went to Miss Manners Apology Finishing School!

“I wish you could hear a voice recording of my former colleague,” my niece, Amy, tells me. “She constantly apologizes for random things that obviously need no apology. It forces the other end of the conversation to always be saying, 'No, not at all, it's fine,' instead of whatever you wanted to talk about instead.”

I can relate. I have a friend in California who apologizes so much I want to kick her under the table. The last time we gathered at a restaurant with several other friends, she offered five apologies (yes, I counted) before our waiter brought out appetizers.

“Oh, I’m sorry, did you want to sit by the window?” “Oh, I interrupted you. I’m sorry, Please go ahead.” “Oh, is this your menu? I’m so sorry.” “Oh, I’m sorry, were you just about to order?” When we walk on narrow sidewalks, we frequently bump hips and again, it’s “Oh, sorry,” even though I most likely bumped into her, being the infinitely more clumsy one. If I knocked her off the sidewalk, I’m quite certain she would look up from her prone position and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

Maybe I get irritated because I’m from Brooklyn and she’s from the South where she was taught to leave food on her plate at every meal for “Miss Manners.” Each of her apologies is said so politely and deliberately that you’d think she went to Miss Manners Apology Finishing School. Some people are impressed with her grace and good manners, but the "I’m sorrys" are too much.

What drives over-apologizing? Women in my generation were raised to feel guilty if we were anything less than an emotional service station to others. We may be quick to feel responsible for everything. As comedian and writer Amy Poehler puts it, “It takes years as a woman to unlearn what you have been taught to be sorry for.”

I've been investigating the subject of apologies for over a decade, and it's clear that over-apologizing can be about many things. It may be a reflection of low self-esteem, a diminished sense of entitlement, an unconscious wish to avoid any possibility of criticism or disapproval before it even occurs, an excessive wish to placate and please, some underlying river of shame, or a desire to show off what a well-mannered Brownie Scout one is.

Or, alternatively, the reflexive “I’m sorrys” may be nothing more than a verbal tic, a little self-effacing girl-thing that developed long ago, and now is something like an automatic hiccup.

You don’t need to know what causes something to fix it. If you over-apologize, tone it down. If you’ve forgotten to return your friend’s Tupperware don’t apologize numerous times as if you ran over her kitten. Over-apologizing creates distance and interrupts the normal flow of conversation. It will irritate your friends, and also make it harder for them to hear you when you offer an apology that you really need to give.

It’s the heartfelt apology that matters that we need to hold on to. When defensiveness kicks in, neither men or women do very well in the apology department.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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