Sorry, not sorry: Do we apologize too much?

Lena Dunham is done saying sorry. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Girls creator Lena Dunham thinks “apologizing is a modern plague.” Canadians are notoriously afflicted by the condition.

“We do say ‘sorry’ too much,” said Ottawa-based etiquette expert Julie Blais Comeau.

“I think it’s because there is a level of insecurity, where we’re afraid of being perceived as too firm or aggressive.”

Blais Comeau thinks over-apologizing can be especially harmful in business situations, making people appear powerless.

That’s where Dunham realized her incessant apologies were a problem, according to an essay she wrote on LinkedIn last week.

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At 24, she was running the show at HBO’s Girls, dealing with lawyers, agents and writers. Despite feeling confident in her work, she couldn’t seem to override her “hardwired instinct to apologize.”

“If I changed my mind, if someone disagreed with me, even if someone else misheard me or made a mistake… I was so, so sorry.”

READ MORE: #Sorrynotsorry: can this plug-in stop you from undermining yourself?

“I’d be willing to bet,” she wrote, “that many women utter ‘I’m sorry’ more on a given day than ‘Thank You’ and ‘You’re Welcome’ combined.”

“We rush to say it when we’re interrupted. … We mutter it when a man walks too close to us on the street.”

Research backs up Dunham. Women do apologize more often than men. A 2010 University of Waterloo study found that’s because men have a “higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour.”

Why do we over-apologize?

Toronto psychotherapist Krista Roesler thinks women have simply been socialized to over-apologize. She believes it’s part of the expectation of “femininity” placed on them from a young age.

As we all get older, apologizing becomes an automatic response.

“It’s like when you touch something hot you automatically pull your hand away. Certain situations trigger many Canadians to apologize, such as bumping into someone on the street.”

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Part of the reason behind that, Roesler said, is our desire to be agreeable and “people-please.”

WATCH: Is there a right way to say you’re sorry? Turns out researchers from Ohio State University have come up the perfect formula to apologize.

Click to play video: 'Researchers come up with the perfect way to say sorry'
Researchers come up with the perfect way to say sorry

How do we stop overdoing it?

Roesler suggests replacing “sorry” with “excuse me” or “pardon me.”

Or just get comfortable with silence filling that space. You could also say “thank you” instead, she pointed out.

For example:

“I’m sorry for being late” could be switched to: “Thank you for being patient.”

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“I’m sorry for complaining” can be transformed into: “Thank you for listening.”

Here are a couple other potential swaps that could be made:

“I’m sorry to interrupt” can become: “I would like to add.”

“I’m sorry that must have been hard for you” could be expressed as: “That sounds frustrating.”

‘The power of a real apology’

The women all agree on “the power of a real apology,” as Dunham put it.

“If you save [the sorry] for sincere apologies, it would be so much more powerful,” Blais Comeau said.

Because when you actually have something to apologize for, it holds weight. And it doesn’t get diminished by what Dunham called “the litany of reflex sorries” that we dole out all day.

Plus, Roesler added, insincere apologies can destroy trust, which is a relationship essential.

“When I replaced apologies with more fully formed and honest sentiments,” Dunham said, “a world of communication possibilities opened up to me.”


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