Apologies, Part 2: I’m Sorry, So Sorry

I’m sorry, so sorry                                                                                                        Please accept my apology.      

Brenda Lee, 1960

In my previous post, I explored the notion of authentic and false apologies.  This second essay was inspired by a recent phone conversation during which a gentleman friend inquired of my opinion about women and over-apologizing.


It was far too familiar, I had to admit to him.  I, like many women, have suffered from this affliction for a long time.  While I have worked hard to eradicate “I’m sorry” from my vocabulary, the phrase  sprouts  up like a  weed in the crack of a sidewalk.


My own habit was brought to my attention years ago during a standard  career interest meeting with a high school guidance counselor.  She said something to the effect of, “Do you realize how often you say ‘I’m sorry’?  You don’t have to do that.”

Old habits die hard.  I still have a tendency to apologize on occasion by prefacing my opinions in conversation or in an assumed breech of etiquette.  I have actually apologized when asserting myself to stop another’s rude or irritating behavior.  A few months ago, on a flight from Chicago to Miami, a woman seated two rows behind my sister and niece and me bellowed her way through a conversation with her friend.  This went on for twenty minutes before I finally unhooked my seat belt and approached her, saying something like, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but could you just lower your voice a little?  Thanks very much.”  I boomeranged to my seat before she could respond, and noted that the conversation ceased and then re-started much more quietly.  The man seated across the aisle from me leaned over and whispered, “Thank you.”  This woman’s behavior wasn’t abhorrent, but it was certainly irritating.  Yet I somehow felt the need to insert my own apology before making my request.

While awareness may be half the battle, observing this habit in others really brings it home.  Two former colleagues were possessed of the habit in spades.  One, a supervisee, had managed to elevate the practice to an art form, making me look demonic in comparison.  Her apologies rained down on every conversation like tiny hailstones, making communicating with her painful and frustrating.

Journalist Sloane Crosley calls women’s over-apologizing a tic on the one hand, and a  “tiny act of revolt” on the other.  Writing recently in the New York Times (6/23/16), she claims that women’s propensity to apologize more than men cannot be explained away by  theories on gender differences in brain development or social perceptions.  She believes women’s over-apologizing has actually increased .    This may be true;  consider the Dove and Pantene ads of the last year or so; Amy Schumer has also tackled the issue in an episode from her own show, Inside Amy Schumer (I have not seen it).

Crosley says that women’s apologies are much more complex than the typical niceties of the “please” and “excuse me’s” peppering our interactions.  More  significantly, our apologies reflect  ” … anger at having to ask for what should be automatic.  They are employed when a situation is so clearly not our fault that we think the apology will serve as a prompt for the person who should be apologizing.”  If this is true, then we are surely expending a boatload of energy for no  pay-off.


Crosley might suggest that an apology such as the one I made on the airplane is actually  “… not an attempt at unobtrusiveness.  It’s not even good manners.  It’s a poor translation for a string of expletives.”  Yikes.  I was irritated, but not furious.  I’m not so sure that a “Could you f—-ing take it down a notch, huh?” would ha garnered compliance, and likely would have made the trip even more uncomfortable.


Crosley’s point, though, is that apologies clearly have no place in situations where ” … being direct is vital — such as when demanding a raise.”   Lesson:  apologize when it’s warranted, and don’t apologize when it’s not.  Separate “I’m sorry” from the etiquette of “Please” and “Excuse me.”

Still, I argue that apologies, like so many of our ways of interacting with each other, are shaped by multiple forces.  Child-rearing practices and family culture certainly play a role.   Research on gender differences in brain functioning suggests that women are more sensitive to emotions and more easily express empathy than men.  We might even take a page from sociobiology and consider that a  few hundred thousand years ago, females were in the dark cave learning how to discern their infants’ needs by studying their cries and facial expressions while males were out and about, perfecting their eye-hand coordination as they chased down the buffalo.

Consider how  we first learn to apologize.    Saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t come naturally to human beings.  Often, though, apologies are forced on us before we can  appreciate their value in repairing connections with others.   The well-intended demand from  teachers or parents to say “I’m sorry” is done in the belief that it completes the restorative work in resolving a conflict.

The apology-on-demand has unintended consequences, including a child’s sense that an unkind act is rendered excused with a perfunctory “I’m sorry” or “It was an accident!”  Many years ago, in my first classroom, a four year-old boy assumed a habit of quietly tripping classmates and immediately saying,  “I’m sorry.”

In the heat of conflict, when feelings are running high, children feel that their personal self-interests are at stake.  This is part of their developmental trajectory.  They make errors as they learn how to enter play, build friendships, and figure out how to see other points of view.

So when an adult commands, “Say you’re sorry!” the child complies — but does not mean it.   She is either ashamed or stewing in her juices.  Their is little social learning here.  Watch any episode from the “Super Nanny” show in which the child is repeatedly placed on the “naughty chair” until he collapses in exhaustion and is then required to apologize to the adult.  Granted, families in these shows are profiled because they have requested intervention.  But in most instances the child is distraught, seeming to apologize out of fear.

Demanding an apology before helping the child begin to see how her behavior impacts others short-circuits the real work necessary to build social competence and that critical skill of empathy.  The experience includes a dose of healthy guilt — that feeling of discomfort that helps her  begin taking responsibility for her behavior.  If you tear a page from the book, you can re-tape it.  If you hurt a friend’s feelings, you can practice how to be kinder.  If you hit your friend you can check to see if she is alright and say you won’t do it again.  This comes with consistent adult coaching in identifying and managing feelings — and yes, modeling sincere apologies also.  These practices are precursors to genuine apologies, which children can offer more readily around the age of 5 or 6, when cognitive development lends itself to seeing from other points or view and understanding intentionality.

Perhaps if we give more attention to teaching children how to  apologize appropriately,  they’ll  be more able to do so with sincerity in adulthood.

Crosley is right.  We should stop over-apologizing and say what it is we really want.

Add to that:  apologize when it’s merited.   More sincere apologies … fewer false apologies … fewer over-apologies.  More emotional intelligence … better relationships.


Life is an adventure in forgiveness.                                                                         Norman Cousins