Sorry [doesn’t] seem to be the hardest word

I have a confession to make. I used to be a serial apologiser. I am British so it does come with the territory but I apologised so much, a former colleague described me as having ‘sorry tourettes’.

I used to say sorry for everything. If someone banged into me, I’d say sorry. I’d apologise for delegating work to my team even though I was their manager. I once apologised for needing to tell a waitress my chicken was still raw in a restaurant.

Now I do believe it’s important to take responsibility and be personally accountable for our actions. But, the majority of times I apologised was for things completely out of my control. I was doing it for the other person to try and avoid confrontation and didn’t think about how my ‘sorry’ was impacting on me.

Why do women apologise so much?

 It was only when someone pointed out how often I said sorry that I became more conscious of my behaviour. It also made me more aware of other people’s.

Now this wasn’t any sort of scientific study; it was something I picked up on in my workplace (please note, I work in a very male-dominated environment) but I noticed a difference between how often men and women apologise and what they were apologising for. I found women were much more likely to say sorry for small things such asking a question, where as it was rare to get an apology from a man even when they had created a significant negative impact on other people’s workloads.

I don’t think my experiences are too dissimilar from a lot of other women. A You Gov poll showed 44% of females surveyed felt women apologised too frequently. More than 10 per cent more women (37 per cent) thought they personally apologised too frequently compared to men (26 per cent). Reasons behind the compulsion to apologise range from women having higher standards of behaviours to me and / or automatically putting themselves into a secondary position, thereby making themselves seem less important.

Judith Baxter, a Professor at Aston University studied the language female leaders used to express themselves at work. Judith found women were four times more likely to use what she calls ‘double voicing’ in a corporate environment. This is when a person tries to build in awareness of what someone might be thinking into their speech and counteract it.

I know I’m probably coming across really badly

This is going to sound stupid…

You will know better than me…

Essentially women are anticipating and counteracting criticism before it happens, as well as softening their language to make it better received.

It seems we do this because we have to. Research has shown that female leaders who act in the same way as men are viewed negatively and don’t get the same results. Negotiating is seen as being aggressive and being authoritative makes you bossy. Women are behaving differently because otherwise they are penalised in a way that man aren’t. Jennifer Lawrence wrote about her own experience of not softening her speech in Lena Dunham’s newsletter, Lenny. She had given her opinion and it was perceived that she was being hostile when all she had done is deliver it in a straightforward way.

So what can we do?

I find the issues around women and language complex. The gender pay gap in the UK reinforces that. However, reducing saying sorry unnecessarily and using self-depreciating language feels a good first step. Self-awareness is key and understanding our triggers around the language we use helps us change.

4 ways to minimise the use of sorry

  1. I apologise more when speaking than in written communication. For the latter, there is an App called Just Not Sorry which you can add to your Google task bar and it will check your emails for too many uses of sorry and self-depreciating phrases such as just.
  2. Use phrases such as ‘thank you for waiting’ and ‘thank you for your patience’ rather than apologising. You’re still being polite and recognising someone else’s feelings.
  3. Become aware of double voicing and try to minimise its use (this is a really hard one for me).
  4. Still recognise there is a time and place for an apology such as being late or hurting someone’s feelings.

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