Like many women, I grew up with an apology ever-present on my lips. If a man walked too close to me on the street, I would apologize and let him pass. If I needed to get through a thick crowd of people, or wanted to share a controversial opinion, or if I had upset a man by turning down his romantic advances, the first words out of my mouth were always “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, you go ahead first.”
“I’m sorry, I need to get through.”
“I’m sorry, I disagree.”
“I’m sorry, I’m just not that interested.”
It was rare that any of my female friends noticed the frequent apologies, maybe because I was more comfortable around them than I was in public, or maybe because they apologized just as frequently as I did. It wasn’t until I began hanging out with more confident women and men that I noticed how often the word “sorry” penetrated my conversations.
People would laugh and say, “Stop apologizing! Why are you sorry?” I would smile and nod my head in agreement, but inside I feared what would happen if I did not apologize. The word “sorry” was like a crutch for me to lean on any time a situation became uncomfortable, even when it wasn’t my fault. Without it, I feared that people would be mad at me.
When looking at studies on the matter, it’s clear that I am not the only woman to feel this way.
According to a series of studies conducted by Karina Schumann and Michael Ross, women are more likely to find fault in their actions than their male counterparts, leading to more frequent apologies.
“[The researchers] also found that women reported committing more offenses than men, and this difference fully accounted for the apology frequency finding,” explained Juliana Breines in an article for Psychology Today. “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.”
At first glance, these findings seem to line up with old gender stereotypes that say men are more confident than women, but this is not the case. Rather, women are conditioned to take a backseat role in society and are told not to act out of line least they gain an unfavorable reputation. This leads to women apologizing more for otherwise insignificant situations.
But knowing the way society conditions women to be quiet and apologetic does not cure us of those constraints. And without a solution, over-apologizing can lead to issues in relationships, careers, and general life fulfillment.
I reached my “I’m sorry” limit earlier this month when a man refused to leave me alone. I was used to men not taking “no” for an answer. I was also used to apologizing for rejecting them. But I was not used to all the life-changing situations happening around me. America was in quarantine, social justice protests ran throughout the streets, I was sick with a common cold, and still had work to do. I was tired and I did not want to date him.
But no matter how much I apologized and politely rejected this man, he persisted. It was as though my words went through his ear one way and out the other without ever touching his brain. I did everything I could to be kind and polite until finally I was fed up with him and every instance when a man refused to respect my decisions.
I squared my shoulders and said, “I do not want to date you. You need to leave me alone.” He reached out to me four more times until I blocked him on social media.
I realized then that it did not matter if I apologized or if I stood my ground confidently — some people simply have no respect for others. I was angry that this man would not listen to me, but for once, I was happy because I stood up for myself wholeheartedly.
The need to apologize can be good. It can be a sign of empathy and kindness, and by using it properly, it can strengthen relationships. But when used too often, it can hurt people in their attempts to be heard and respected.
Women should never feel the need to apologize for existing, taking up space, or forming boundaries. But in being unapologetic, women can be empowered. It is time to stop saying “sorry.”