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  • Writer's pictureDr. Kate Webster

Quiet Power: Sorry Not Sorry

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Can you see yourself in any of the following scenarios?

  • You’re in a business meeting sitting at a table and turn to yourboss and say “Sorry, can I ask a stupid question?”

  • You are sitting in a row of seats and a guy comes in, spreads his legs and arms out and you shrink smaller in your seat, all the while saying “Sorry.”

  • You bump into a light post and apologize to it.

Okay, maybe not the last one. Yet, I am betting that if you saw yourself in the other two, you are most likely female. These scenarios actually came from a Pantene hair commercial that starts off by asking: “Why are women always apologizing?” Don’t get me wrong: there are times when it is highly appropriate to apologize, especially if you’ve said or done something hurtful. However, why do women, more so than men, over-apologize in situations where apologies are not necessary—such as in these above situations?

One key reason is the conditioning women receive to be small and demure, and therefore not rock the boat. When I ask my Gender & Society students at Dominican and DePaul Universities to define male and female qualities, I receive consistent stereotypical depictions of men’s and women’s roles in our society.

Routinely, they list men as… Strong, bread winners, independent, athletic, competitive, aggressive, dominant, unemotional, distant, and smart.

While women are depicted as… Kind, nurturing, weak, mothering, dependent, emotional, care taking, appearance focused, with the occasional mention of smart and sassy.

My students comment right away how the masculine list is more about power and strength and the feminine list is about docility and dependence. While we all know these are gender-biased stereotypes, they still infiltrate our psyche and, male or female, compete with our authentic version and perception of ourselves.

It is these roles that condition women to be small, dependent and hence make unnecessary apologies. In fact, these apologies take away a woman’s power and right to be someone who isn’t defined by these roles. Saying you’re sorry keeps the peace and doesn’t rock the boat. It may be subtle, but similar to my previous blog on saying “No” , when you don’t follow the societal conventions and expectations, it can make others and yourself feel uncomfortable. Yet, all you are doing by not saying “Sorry” is claiming you have a right to ask a question and sit how you want.

However, caution is advised in taking on this new skill. In trainings I give on Mindful Communication, I encourage participants to examine when and why they apologize and, if it’s inappropriate, to remove it. What happens next is quite comical, but telling. During breaks in the day-long trainings, women often overzealously try out their new-found skill of not apologizing. One participant remarked how excited she was when she and another person bumped into each other in the hallway and she didn’t apologize. Who knows who bumped who, but perhaps in this situation a quick “I’m sorry” would have sufficed and not taken away her power.

It’s a tricky balance and one you can develop by practicing, making mistakes, and refining over time. The key is to check in with yourself and assess whether you did wrong, or you are trying to please, placate, and not rock the boat.

  • Write down every time you say “I’m sorry”: Being aware of when you apologize is a big first step in decreasing the number of times you say it. One way to do this is to write down each time you say “Sorry” on a daily basis. You can do this with the following written tool:

- On a piece of paper, create a table that has four columns labeled as follows:

- “Date”

- “App” for appropriate apology

- “Not App” for not appropriate apology

- “NS” for not sure

  • On a daily basis, fill in the date for each occurrence and check the corresponding box of whether the apology was appropriate.

  • Assess the total daily or weekly numbers of time you apologize, differentiating between those that are appropriate and those that are not.

  • Have someone else point it out: Solicit the help of a colleague, close friend, or safe relative to tell you when you apologize and whether it was necessary. Another’s perspective can help you to differentiate between apologies that are necessary and those that aren’t. You can add these to your table created in #1 if you choose.

  • Let others know their apologies aren’t necessary: As you become more aware of your own apologies and whether they are appropriate, you’ll start to notice how much other people say it too. For example, when a colleague at work asks you during a meeting: “I’m sorry, but can you explain that again,” you can reply: “Sure, and there is no need to apologize, as I am happy to explain it to you.”

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