Over-apologizing at work is a plague among our core demographic of readers (young people, women, judgmental introverts).
If you’re anything like me, you were raised to apologize way too often. I grew up in the American Midwest, Land of the Rising Ope. Socially, we value politeness above all else (corn subsidies and casseroles excluded, obviously). I never thought critically about how much I was apologizing. Until, without realizing it, “sorry” became my default response to every conceivable situation, whether positive, negative, or neutral.
- Me, when I’m five minutes late: “Ope, sorry!”
- Also me, but when I’m five minutes early: “Ope, sorry!”
- And me when I’m exactly on time: (Okay, this has never happened to me even once in my life. But if it did, I would absolutely apologize for setting incorrect expectations of future punctuality.)
This habit was especially noticeable at work. For years, I unconsciously gravitated towards soft, supple, accommodating language in every communication I sent, lest my coworkers find me bitchy and unlikable. It was tedious, but I truly thought I was being a polite, flexible communicator.
In reality, I was sabotaging myself.
Now that I’ve recategorized “being bitchy and unlikable” from fears to goals, I have embraced a more authentic communication style. And that’s allowed me to express myself more easily and effectively than I ever thought possible.
You do it more than you think
Several years ago, I had a fateful moment in which I realized it was time to stop over-apologizing.
I was working at my first Big Girl job, and I needed to reread an email I’d sent. I remembered starting that particular email with an apology. So I typed the word “sorry” into the search bar. I expected that to narrow my search quite a bit. Instead, I was gobsmacked to see that it eliminated almost none of my sent emails.
Of my 500 most recent professional emails sent, 322 of them contained the word “sorry.”
Later that week, I got confirmation that this had a measurable negative impact on my ~*personal brand*~. Coworkers were asked to describe my personality as part of a team-building activity. The people I worked super closely with wrote things that resonated with me, like “confident” and “hilarious.”
Not so the people I chiefly interacted with over email! To my horror, they chose words like (breathes into a paper bag) “thorough, professional, and nice.”
Y’all… I am NOT a meek person. Midwestern upbringing aside, I am pathologically defiant and an absolutely unrepentant bastard about it. I am the horse in every horse girl movie! I AM STARDUST!
But in my efforts to craft a socially acceptable non-equine worksona, I’d gone too far in the other direction. “Thorough, professional, and nice” does not describe a leader. It describes a bland female robot. One destined to tirelessly work her thankless entry-level job until her atoms are blown apart by Thanos.
Why we struggle to stop over-apologizing
From an evolutionary perspective, apologies are a critical lubricant for cooperative groups. (Wow, I promise to try to work the phrase “critical lubricant” into more posts in the future.)
Many social animals exhibit apologetic behaviors. Dogs bow; apes smile; lions groom each other. It’s a way of resolving conflict nonviolently and maintaining clear social order.It’s no coincidence that those behaviors are also used to show submission. When social animals cause harm or overstep a social boundary, we show submission to our community to regain acceptance.
And that’s great! Don’t get me wrong. I prefer apologies to fisticuffs. But it’s easy to see how frequent apologies can lead to unintended social consequences.
We’re unsure of our position in the group
To that end, over-apologizing stems from a lack of confidence. We’re seeking reassurance from the group that we’re still accepted. People who feel especially sensitive to social rejection sometimes use apologies as a back door to ask for social affirmation. We ask for forgiveness when we really want acceptance.
This can be especially harmful for those who have anxiety or OCD. Because it easily morphs into a compulsive behavior with diminishing returns.
Because we’re socialized to be people pleasers
Women are often stereotyped as apologizers. How true is that?
Interestingly, studies show women and men actually apologize at the same rate when they perceive they’ve given offense. The difference lies in what each group interprets to be offensive. Statistically, women are more likely to think they’ve done something objectionable. They also tend to infer more severe outcomes for those offenses.
The men in the same studies were not only less likely to report committing offenses. They were less likely to report being the victims of others’ offenses. This means the difference isn’t in how often we say sorry. It’s in how often we feel the need.
Women are socialized to maintain social harmony at all costs. So we end up apologizing just for taking up space.
Because we don’t know a better way
Obviously we’re all capable of adjusting our communication styles.
But it’s hard to entirely break away from the communication patterns we see modeled every day. We tend to talk like other people talk: our parents, our friends, our coworkers, our favorite fictional characters.
If we want to stop over-apologizing, we have to make a conscious effort to resist the tides. It’s draining to be present, resist routines, and find creative new ways to communicate old ideas.
Luckily the opposite is also true. The more we do it, the easier it gets for everyone.
Why “sorry” sucks
There’s a time and a place to apologize. And unless you work consciously to stop over-apologizing, you probably do it way too often. It’s a common communication foible. So people probably underestimate exactly how annoying and counterproductive it is.
Here’s your reality check.
It makes you sound weak
Okay, y’all know I try not to go full Glengarry on you too often. That’s not usually How We Do. But sometimes you just gotta don a blue shirt with a white collar. And then you’ve got to spout brutal theories about human nature. Like this one: saying sorry is a total loser move.
I don’t mean genuine apologies! Many of history’s biggest alphas, chads, sharks, Miranda Priestlys, and closers have apologized. Try admitting a mistake and owning the fallout. It can demonstrate a lot of positive leadership qualities, such as humility and courage.
But cheap, reflexive apologies signal psychological and social weakness. You betray that you’re not confident in yourself. A great example of this is Nate from Ted Lasso. (Season one Nate. Season two Nate’s lack of confidence manifests in a much more destructive way.)
At best, your coworkers will lower their expectations of you. At worst, they’ll take advantage of you outright.
It’s socially awkward
If you can’t stop over-apologizing, you may find people around you getting… exasperated.
Imagine that moment where you’re getting on an airplane, and the ticket agent hands you your boarding pass. She says “have a nice flight,” and you immediately say “thanks, you too.” That’s because its part of a basic, reflexive communication script. It’s so common we do it without thinking.
When someone says “I’m sorry,” they’re imposing a social expectation. An expectation that you respond with minimizing benevolence. Your knee-jerk reaction to an apology is probably something like…
- “It’s okay!”
- “You’re good!”
- “No worries!”
- “No need to apologize!”
- “It’s not a big deal!”
When you’re communicating with someone who can’t stop over-apologizing, the conversations can begin to feel manipulative. If no real offense was committed, it can feel like the other person is fishing for reassurance or compliments. And if an offense was committed, it can feel like the over-apologizer is cutting you off from discussing the harm by being preemptively defensive.
If you done fucked up, you need to let people feel their feelings a bit. Not rush to shut them up with a meaningless “I’m sorry!”
It dilutes real apologies
Looking back through my own emails, most of my sorries were for things that were in no way transgressions. Like not responding to an email because I was away on vacation. Or needing to cancel a meeting because of a conflict.
But occasionally, I had real reason to apologize. Once, I missed a deadline that caused another coworker to scramble. I needed to acknowledge the unfair situation I’d put her in, and make a serious offer to repair it in whatever way I could.
If I gave her a sincere apology, I’m sure she would’ve forgiven me. But how sincere could I be if it was the sixth apology she’d gotten from me that week?
Apologies are like spell slots in D&D. You have a limited amount that replenishes slowly over time. You need to conserve them for when you actually need them. Otherwise, they feel like an empty gesture with no real magic behind the words.
It lessens your self-esteem
There’s one person who has to listen every time you can’t stop over-apologizing.
And that can have a serious impact on your own self-perception. How can you feel like a confident, capable adult if you spend a good chunk of every day cringing and pleading with others?
Imposter Syndrome isn’t a natural disaster that just happens. It’s not a medical diagnosis with no treatment and no cure. It’s a self-destructive habit we have the power to recognize and resist. But it’s harder to do so if you keep handing the microphone to your fears.
It’s fucking boring
Out of all possible conversation loops, my #1 most hated is saying “it’s okay, it’s okay” over and over again to someone who can’t stop over-apologizing. NOTHING could bore me more.
If I have to participate in a tedious ritual, I’d rather sit through a full Catholic Mass than your unnecessary apology. Because at least there’s donuts in the church hall after Mass.
How to stop over-apologizing once and for all
Good news! Over-apologizing is not a family curse in a gothic horror novel. You have the power to break the cycle.
Replace “I’m sorry” with “thanks”
Replacing apologies with gratitude is a legit life hack. It’s honestly the closest thing I have to “one cool trick for communicating effectively in the Lovecraftian nightmare that is the modern workplace.”
In the workplace, 90% of “I’m sorries” would be better served as “thank yous.”
Over-apologizing creates a negative loop that diminishes your esteem with yourself and your credibility with others. On the other hand, expressing gratitude performs the opposite function, with greater precision and better results. It gives you an opportunity to indirectly compliment your coworker, focusing both of you on the positive aspects of your working relationship.
- “Sorry I’m late…”
- “I hate to bug you again…”
- “Sorry I didn’t reply sooner…”
- “I don’t mean to be a pain…”
- “Sorry I went on for so long…”
- “Thanks for waiting.”
- “Your expertise has been so helpful.”
- “I appreciate your patience.”
- “Thanks for being accommodating.”
- “Thank you for listening.”
If you really struggle with this, try browser plugins like this one that highlight apologies and passive language like they’re grammatical errors.
Practice making unqualified statements
Some workplaces are more authoritarian than others. (Cough, cough… Retail. Non-profits. Tiny companies run “like a family.”) I can tell when someone has worked in one, because they tend to apologize and provide justifications for everything. They send me emails like this…
“Sorry to be a pain, but is there any way we could take me off the schedule for Tuesday? I have a dental appointment, and I don’t want to ask them to change it because it’s already been rescheduled twice, and I am six months overdue for my annual cleaning!”
Don’t make unnecessary apologies and justifications for communicating perfectly normal boundaries. You don’t need to give reasons or cite sources for everything you do. That’s giving your employer way too much implied power over you. Just say the unqualified truth, which is:
“I’m not free on Tuesday.”
Remember: “No” is a complete sentence.
Recallibrate your definition of harm
I talked earlier about how women don’t necessarily apologize more often—they just imagine they’ve done harm more often. So if you’re someone (of any gender) who can’t stop over-apologizing, consider examining what you consider to be harmful behavior.
Let’s say you get a text from a friend, and for whatever reason, you forgot to respond to it for a day. If you have anxiety or a poor self-image, you may jump to the conclusion that your friend was harmed by this. You envision them tapping their toes, sighing in exasperation, awaiting your response. Maybe they’re wondering why they’re even friends with you.
Before you apologize, dare to imagine the opposite. What if they think a day is a perfectly normal length of time? Or even, what if they’ve got twelve different text threads going in a day, and aren’t hanging breathlessly on each and every one? What if, by apologizing, you make them feel bad for every time they’ve been slow to respond?
It’s good to have the impulse to correct harm. But thinking your every action is capable of seriously derailing others is a kind of Main Character Syndrome. It’s a viciously self-critical perfectionism to which you can’t live up. Don’t hold yourself to standards you’d never expect from others.
Have you struggled to stop over-apologizing?
Have you managed to change for the better? Or are you super sorry, but you still totally do it?
Don’t beat yourself up. Life trains a lot of people to feel they need to apologize for such grievous crimes as…
- Expressing yourself.
- Asking for what you need.
- Doing what’s best for yourself.
- Being different.
- Having a life.
- Wanting to not be working literally all of the time.
Tell us about what strategies have worked for you! What was your wake-up moment? How do you handle bosses who act like they’re a benevolent deity when they respect a normal boundary? Do you cringe when you have to deal with over-apologizers?
We want your war stories. Tell us about them in the comments below!
More of our dark magic for navigating the workplace:
- Should You Trust Your Human Resources Department?
- Season 2, Episode 7: “How Do I Throw My Incompetent Coworkers under the Bus?”
- Season 2, Episode 6: “Someone Offered to Mentor Me! How Do I Be a Non-Sucky Mentee?”
- Accepted a Coworker’s Social Media Friend Request? Yeah, You’re Gonna Regret That.
- Are You Working on the Next Fyre Festival?: Identifying a Toxic Workplace