I’m frequently told I apologize too much. Friends, employees, and coworkers have commented on it. I usually don’t even notice I’m doing it and the words flow out of my mouth without thought—just part of my small talk repertoire. Sure, there are times when I know I’ve screwed up and I sincerely apologize to someone, as people should, but nine times out of ten when the word “sorry” crosses my lips that’s not the case.
Where did I pick up this habit? Like so many other women, it’s something I learned growing up; if not directly, then by example from other women in my life. “Sorry” is often used to tone down a statement or demand, and people who are socialized as women are often taught to tone down all the different parts of ourselves. Dress codes teach us we need to tone down our bodies, we’re told to tone our feelings or risk being brushed off as sensitive and over-emotional, and if we don’t tone down our opinions we’re labeled as bitchy.
Being raised as a woman means we learn that we often need to apologize to soften demands and to keep ourselves safe. And since it seems so much easier to teach girls to apologize than to teach boys what consent is, we have to apologize when saying no and turning down advances we never wanted to diffuse potentially dangerous situations.
At a certain point apologizing becomes such an ingrained behavior that we’ve basically started apologizing for our entire existence.
Science has tried to analyze why women apologize more than men. One study showed that when making a list of offenses they committed and how often they apologized for them, men and women apologize for offenses equally. The difference was that women felt they were committing more offenses, while men had a higher threshold for what constituted an offense.
I can only speak to my own experience, but the need to apologize has been amplified exponentially since becoming chronically ill, as has this feeling that I’m expected to be overwhelmingly grateful to those who accommodate my medical needs. There are countless situations where chronically ill, mentally ill, and likely many other marginalized groups feel the need to apologize for circumstances and needs completely out of their control.
For me, my extreme sensitivity to fragrances constantly puts me in a position to ask the people I come into contact with to be mindful of what they’re wearing and using around me. People are usually willing to accommodate me, but they often find subtle, passive-aggressive ways to let me know that it was an inconvenience and I should be deeply appreciative of their actions. I feel like I should be apologizing for having inconvenienced them, and added to the existing cultural conditioning to be apologetic, I sometimes feel like I’m apologizing for my entire existence.
It is as frustrating to be criticized for apologizing too much as it is to feel like you have something to apologize for.
Women are taught to apologize, and yet they’re also criticized for doing so. Business magazines, in particular, are quick to point out all the ways over-apologizing can tank your career. These satirical illustrations of what women should do to be less threatening in the workplace become a bit less comical when you realize you’ve done some of them to avoid upsetting a boss or coworker.
This article in Fast Company goes so far as to say that apologizing too much is a trait that makes you “appear unfit for leadership,” but in the same breathe also points out that workplace culture often dictates a need for those apologies, since “strong women need to find ways to temper their personalities or risk being called ‘rude,’ ‘abrasive,’ and even risk their jobs if they don’t find ways to soften others’ perception.” It’s another illustration of how women are asked to be everything at once: assertive but not too opinionated; beautiful and sexy, but not slutty; confident despite constant criticisms.
Telling women and other marginalized groups they need to stop apologizing so much is decidedly unhelpful. In fact, I suspect that those who are telling people they “have to” stop apologizing are also perpetuating the idea that women have something to apologize for. A Huffington Post article tells women that, “Existing in a space is not a privilege—it is a right. Treat it as such, and have the courage to stop apologizing for it.” It sounds empowering at first glance, but at its core, this quote exemplifies the notion that this issue is not only a women’s problem but also their responsibility to fix it. The message that’s really sending is that women need to alter their behavior, once again, to be more socially acceptable.
I found dozens of articles telling women they need to stop apologizing, and zero that addressed how counterproductive it is to criticize women, or any other marginalized group, for apologizing too much in a culture that still expects them to apologize for their existence. Unsurprisingly, I also didn’t see a single article telling men how to make changes in the workplace so that women don’t feel they need to say “sorry” in the first place.
Our society is so comfortable with putting the blame and responsibility on women that we’re missing the problem entirely.
Rather than telling women to change, we need to change the culture around why certain people feel the need to apologize so much. Perhaps we should stop characterizing opinionated women as bitchy, emotional women as dramatic or “crazy,” and to stop shaming people, of all genders, for wearing whatever makes them comfortable. Or maybe we could educate people better about consent and how to gracefully accept a “no,” so that it stops being necessary for women to apologize for turning down unwanted advances. But most of all, let’s stop putting the blame for the way society treats women, on women.
Stop trying to fit people, of all genders, races, abilities, etc. into this tiny cultural narrative of what’s acceptable. No one needs to apologize for existing, and the only thing that deserves our criticism is the culture that teaches people they have something to apologize for.