Why Apologizing at Work is the One Thing I'm Done Apologizing For
A few weeks ago, I was on a work call with a colleague. Nearing the conclusion of the call, she said, "Can I give you some unsolicited advice, just something I want to make you aware of?" I paused. Horrified, I said, "if it's about my apologizing, I know." She acknowledged that as women we tend to apologize for our very existence and recommended writing down some phrases to replace "I'm sorry" then ended on an encouraging note. Her tone was sincere and respectful.
When the call ended, I gingerly took off my headset and bawled. I've read the research, and I know people view those who say, "I'm sorry" as less capable and less trustworthy.
There are, of course, many healthy reasons to apologize. Apologizing restores social order, heals shame, rebuilds trust, and acknowledges wrongs. According to Beverly Engel, "[a}pologizing to another person is one of the healthiest, most positive actions we can ever take—for ourselves, the other person, and the relationship."
My habit of grossly over apologizing is certainly noticeable to anyone who has spent more than say, five minutes in my presence. Former partners, friends, coworkers, and even Uber drivers (yes, seriously) can attest to my over apologizing. I was in the grocery store once when a guy accidentally knocked over an end cap of breakfast cereal with his shopping cart and I apologized TO HIM for not helping him pick the boxes up more quickly.
I have thought a lot about why I apologize. I think, at some point in my childhood I internalized my responsibility in various failings of my parents including their unsuccessful marriage(s) and substance abuse. Those things weren't my fault of course but my child's brain was not yet aware that people are responsible for their own choices, good or bad. My grandparents provided a stable home, so I did not have to worry about that, however, my grandfather had a tremendous temper and in order to skirt his short fuse, I learned early to anticipate the anger and ensuing raised voice by apologizing. The research shows that apologies are often used in this way, that is, to deflect. It became a part of me. One I really dislike but much like biting my nails, one that has been difficult for me to overcome.
So, to say that I have given the act of apologizing some serious thought would be an understatement. In fact, when people still call me on the behavior, my most common response is, predictably, "I'm sorry". As much as the research has shown this is a coping mechanism or a flaw, apologies need to be de-stigmatized, especially in the workplace. When I apologize (most often for inconveniencing another person) I sincerely mean it.
During college, I knew a great professor who taught feminist legal and social movements and she'd often lament that the point of feminism was not to bring women into male spaces and make them follow male rules, but to make those spaces more equitable in the first place. Given that research shows that women almost universally apologize more than men, this is one of the ways in which having a culture that embraces apologies as a force for social order and communication could empower women in corporate spaces.
Sincere apologies are all too rare and should be normalized and understood for what they are, an expression of concern for the effect our actions have on others. As Sethi and Schneider note, "[a]n apology creates an opening. When done with attention and care, it can be a conduit for greater understanding and deeper connection." An apology should be a beginning, rather than an ending of communication. So my goal is to actually apologize better, not less.