an apology too many


It is natural to show remorse for making a mistake in whatever form that takes and expected as the correct reaction when such an error arises. However, when repeated too often when giving a response, it can be counterproductive and actually damage an otherwise flourishing career.

Inwardly, apologising may act as a defence against a perceived threat to performance or position – a filler to cushion an awkward conversation with a colleague or boss, for example. But apologising, by implication, places women in a submissive position and when conversations become peppered with “I’m sorry”, it results in manifesting outwardly as a lack of confidence.

In the words of psychologist Justine Grosso, over-apologising is “an interpersonal habit pattern with roots in low self-respect, perfectionism and fear of disconnection”. Be it apologising for the weather, the traffic, sneezing, dropping something – expressing this five-letter word becomes an automatic but often unnecessary reflex. Studies show that women often believe that their misdemeanour – perceived or real – is more severe than it actually is and that the fairer sex has been sub-consciously conditioned to over-apologise.

Where does this impulse to say “I’m sorry” too frequently come from?

Apologising may have one definition but for many women, its usage extends to cover several purposes. These include:

  • To avoid conflict
  • To make a problem disappear
  • To keep the peace
  • To fill a silence
  • To hide self-consciousness
  • To cover up shyness or introversion
  • To dispel performance anxiety as a reaction
  • To stress

Smoothing ruffled feathers and defusing difficult situations with “I’m sorry”, habitually prompts a reassuring “don’t worry”. This nonconfrontational approach acts both as a sword and as a shield by disarming the imagined threat, but also by protecting against any further attack. When the situation warrants an apology, it shows humanity, character, and good leadership but an apology too many can make the apologiser lose credibility and accentuates their lack of assurance.


The nature versus nurture quandary becomes clear in the disparity between how girls and boys are treated by their families and educational establishments throughout their early development. Historically, although still applicable today, girls are brought up to be deferential, studious, and polite to others. With boys on the other hand, the emphasis is on being bold and confident.

  • Being brought up with authoritarian parents in a strictly disciplined environment
  • A traumatic or emotionally abusive childhood
  • Having a high level of compassion
  • Being anxious or over-sensitive

As women, we must never be surprised that LANGUAGE surface equality isn’t actual equality. Society still very much plays into gender bias and role definition. When a woman walks into a room, people see a female. For some, this indicates what she is capable of achieving. This, however, should not deter you. If you spend all of your time thinking about how you are viewed, you will lose your ability to be effective. Walk in, embrace your job and do what you’re supposed to do.” Condoleezza Rice, former US National Security Advisor

Women are hardwired into focusing on other people’s feelings and as a result of differing ideas to men on behaviours around merit, their perception of what warrants an apology also differs.

This translates into the business world where women frequently feel in a state of permanent auditioning, even when the job is theirs. Men are far more likely to feel deserving of and comfortable in their roles.

Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, observes that: “Men are continually applauded for being ambitious and powerful and successful, but women who display these same traits often pay a social penalty.”

One survey showed that British women average 10 or 11 “I’m sorries” compared to 7 or 8 apologies by men.


The British custom of regularly giving demeaning excuses, almost propels it into being a national sport when compared to its American counterparts. British cultural norms use an apology as a form of politeness, especially with less familiar people. The research company YouGov created a survey in 2015 which calculated that:

  • Brits apologised 15 times for an American’s ten times.
  • 73% of Brits would apologise for interrupting someone versus 71% of Americans.
  • 60% of Brits would apologise for doing a favour incorrectly compared to 58% of Americans.


Language has such a strong impact on those with whom we work but many women lack the self-awareness on how they project themselves in front of others. Highly talented and experienced women have a tendency to downplay their successes, trivialise their achievements and, in some cases, entirely dismiss experience they deem irrelevant or simply not good enough.

Such is the subconscious frequency in which women undermine themselves when writing emails, that Google devised a plug-in designed specifically to call out incidences of apologetic phraseology (I’m sorry…. /I’m just….). “Just Not Sorry” highlights wording which may diminish a message in a situation which demands more pronounced leadership.

The hidden subtext, of course, is that women should sound more like men. That non-feminine communication is somehow a virtue and that women need to self-police their language in the workplace. Are men and women actually speaking different languages?

Linguistics professor, Deborah Tannen has studied the effectiveness of speaking styles and observed that men receive credit for being assertive and highlighting their achievements but that for women it is the reverse, to the point where accusations are raised over psychological issues. “The characteristics of a good man and a good candidate are the same, but a woman has to choose between coming across as a strong leader or a good woman. If a man appears forceful, logical, direct, masterful, and powerful, he enhances his value as a man. If a woman appears forceful, logical, direct, masterful, or powerful, she risks undercutting her value as a woman.”


How does over-apologising become such a counterproductive habit? In a professional capacity, it is commonly borne from a sense of doubt when first starting a new job. An initial unsureness can quickly evolve into full-blown Imposter Syndrome, compounding the subconscious need to be liked and thought well of and the words “I’m sorry” start to penetrate conversations.

The harsh reality is – over-apologising is annoying. Empathy is one thing, but repeated watery excuses make colleagues lose respect and it also lessens the positive impact of a genuine apology.

Giving up the emotional currency of apologies can be replaced by the higher-valued personal assets of confidence and self-esteem. New habits formed through having the courage of our own convictions will result in kudos from colleagues and peers.


Compulsive apologising in the workplace can undoubtedly subdue a career. Looking for permission to achieve or approval is unnecessary and exudes weakness and possible incompetence. These are not desired qualities when a promotion is within sight.

In what has become known as “the Goldilocks Dilemma”, women who are pleasant and supportive at work are unlikely to be seen as future leaders. But conversely, women who act with authority and (male) toughness are viewed as unpleasant and unlikeable. So, what is the ‘right’ way for a woman to present herself within the work environment?


Psychological studies have shown that people who don’t submit to expressions of remorse have better self-esteem, feel more empowered and have a greater sense of integrity.

In a business environment, interactions should be kept brief, specific and direct. Squeeze out the apologies. In a challenging situation, transparency works best: clearly state the issue at hand and how it can be resolved. Move on.

Delegation can be made less awkward by reframing how the request is articulated. There is no requirement for apologising for things which are out of the bounds of control.

For example, being unable to give up the time to help someone else is not reneging on an obligation and therefore does not warrant an apology. If a meeting has had to be rescheduled, thank those affected for their understanding. If a deadline is looming, admit up front that it has taken longer than expected but that all efforts are being made to complete it as soon as possible.

It is time to get comfortable with being authentic and remove psychological defences.

The key is setting boundaries and creating better self-awareness over when an apology is actually needed by:

  • Identifying what triggers an apology
  • Learning to take a breath before speaking
  • Improving ways to formulate a response
  • Remembering personal strengths


The repeated use of the demoralising “sorry” is not an accelerator to rising up the corporate ladder. Quite the reverse, in fact. It is no small irony that the strengths which initially elevated women to their professional roles often become smothered in self-doubt when faced with a predominance of ‘men in suits’ and new colleagues. However, showing excessive deference is not part of the job description.

Silencing the apologies may take time but the dividends for women are worth the risk of not coming top in a notional office popularity contest. The positive benefits and successes women bring to the table should be the criteria for which they are ultimately judged.