Not all apologies are created equal.
The evening I realized I said “sorry” to my cat for pushing her aside so I could share the chair with her, I knew I needed to start looking into the subject of apologizing.
I’m sorry to say (pun intended!) that when I began my research, I thought I was writing a piece about why women should stop apologizing so much. Turns out, it’s complicated.
While there is some research to support the common view that women apologize more than men, it’s not overwhelming. That said, we all know someone who over-apologizes; typically, that person is female.
To decide whether you fall in the over-apologizing group, you must know that apologies are more complex than a simple, “I’m sorry.”
Here are 4 different kinds of apologies and when you might use them in conversation:
1. The Reflexive Apology.
Take, for example, “I’m sorry I went out with the girls last night.” This is a like a verbal tic we have when we’re not at all sorry.
You actually had a great time with the girls, but you’re trying to make reparation for a less than welcome choice you made. What you’re really thinking is, “Of course you would be happier if I was home to make dinner and get the kids ready for bed, but really, did it kill you?”
Sometimes we offer the reflexive apology after receiving a complaint, like the one about the terrible night he had managing the kids because you were out with the girls.
Sometimes we do it before even receiving said complaint, anticipating that there might be a negative reaction to our behavior.
I have to say that my apology to the cat seems to fall in this category. I realize she is upset with me for moving her, so I’m instinctively apologizing. But am I sorry? Not really.
The reflexive apology restores balance in the relationship. You believe someone is upset with you and you automatically act to restore equilibrium.
Unsurprisingly, the maintenance of peace and harmony in relationships often falls to the woman. Is this a role you want? You must be the judge.
2. The Assertive Apology
You might say, “I’m sorry, I don’t feel like cooking tonight.” It might be a reflexive apology. More likely, it’s your way of asserting that you are not going to do something and/or that you want something, i.e., “I’m not cooking so we need to go out or order in.”
Another case of the assertive apology is, “Sorry, but I didn’t ask for the more expensive synthetic oil in my car,” or, “I didn’t ask for this, and I shouldn’t have to pay for it.”
In each case, think about the meaning when you omit the “sorry.” You’re left with the same sentiment, but it’s slightly more caustic, slightly less traditionally feminine.
With the assertive apology, much like the reflexive sorry, you’re not really sorry at all. You want something, you think it will not be popular and you soften it with the “sorry.” It’s another attempt to maintain the relationship, even with the guy in the car repair shop.
It’s been argued that women ought to be more direct, ask for what they want, and not let the desire to keep the peace confuse their message.
Are you better served with or without the apology?
3. The Blame-Reversing Apology
Consider: “I’m sorry if it annoys you when I ask you to take out the trash.” What may be unsaid but implied by your tone is, “You know it’s your job.” We can include the “I’m sorry, but…” in this category, as well. Consider: “I’m sorry what I said upset you, but you know it’s true.”
According to Harriet Lerner, the blame-reversing apology is worse than no apology at all.
A classic case, and I hate to have to say it, is Dustin Hoffman’s “apology” to Anna Graham Hunter. “I feel terrible that anything I might have done could have put her…” The use of “might” and “could,” are a double-whammy on the apology front. Both smack of blame-reversing, i.e., “It’s really not my fault that you took what I said the wrong way.”
Again, you are not sorry, but unlike the reflexive apology, which strives to maintain peace and harmony, or the assertive apology, by which you are trying to get something, the blame-reversing apology is a passive-aggressive attempt to shift blame to the receiver while seemingly being apologetic. I agree with Lerner’s assessment because in addition to not offering contrition, it also undermines the receiver’s experience.
Personally, I like to avoid this one and recommend you do the same.
4. The Genuine Apology
By genuine, I mean first and foremost, that you’re really feeling it. It must be an honest apology. A fake apology will fall flat. It has to sound honest, so your tone matters.
The genuine apology is something along the lines of these heartfelt apologies:
- “I’m sorry what I said hurt your feelings. It was thoughtless. How can I make it up to you?”
- “I’m sorry I didn’t do what I said I would do. I will try to do better next time. I hope you will call me out if I mess up again.”
- “I’m sorry I can’t make our dinner date. I know it’s important to you. When would be another good time for you?”
These, and other similar apologies reflect the fact that you understand the other person isn’t happy with something you did or didn’t do, and you’d like to make reparation.
Genuine apologies usually have the “I” word and do not include any of the aforementioned ifs, ands, or buts. I don’t want to be the semantics police, but (see, there it is) words matter.
Some argue that a true apology doesn’t require a step toward reparation, but I do not agree. I think if you’re really feeling bad about something, you want to make it up to the person. But like an offer to take someone out to dinner to make up for bad behavior, don’t force it if the person declines your offer.
Flowers or gifts after misbehavior may be nice gestures, but if it was a big transgression, don’t expect immediate forgiveness. In fact, don’t expect forgiveness. That’s up to the other person. If your apology is contingent on forgiveness, you’ve missed the point. Your apology is not supposed to be about you.
When Should We (or Shouldn’t We) Apologize?
On one side, we have the camp that believes that women apologize more than men because it’s expected and it’s actually in their best interests to do so. This reflects the notion that when men are unapologetically assertive, it’s fine, but when women are, it’s aggressive.
Being perceived as too aggressive might cost you a promotion or your job, so you probably want to think twice, but it’s a personal decision. You may (or may not) decide that sacrificing the value you place on being assertive, in the service of being “nice,” isn’t something you’re willing to do.
Another reason we may apologize more than men is that men have a higher threshold for what constitutes a transgression.
Consider this example: My friend was walking in a local green space. She was accosted by three dogs, off-lead, no owner in sight. Their female owner was the first to appear and attempt, unsuccessfully, to corral them. Then the male owner stepped in, all the while the woman was apologizing profusely.
The man uttered not one word of apology. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that most people, male or female, would consider this a pretty big transgression and that the guy was inconsiderate. Apparently, he didn’t see it that way.
This is a perfect example of why I agree with a recent piece concluding that, in some cases, men ought to be a little more like women. We could use more people trying to restore balance and equanimity in conversation and in life. As Lerner points out, you need a lot of self-confidence to see your mistakes and offer a genuine apology.
The other camp believes that women should beware of over-apologizing. When you apologize constantly you can get into a boy-who-cried-wolf situation. Your habitual apology is eventually tuned out because it’s super-annoying to have someone repeatedly apologizing for minor offenses, or for transgressions you didn’t even notice. This is the person who is apologizing for not being clear because you’re asked them a few questions, or who’s sorry they didn’t call first each time you call them.
Over-apologizing can mean that when you really want to make a sincere apology it may fall on deaf ears. It can also reflect a lack of confidence, low self-esteem, and maybe even disingenuousness. You must ask yourself if this is how you want to show up in the world.
Listen to yourself and evaluate your own apology style. You decide if it’s too much, not enough or just right.
I’m not sorry to say that when I accidentally step on my cat in the dark, I’m going to keep apologizing. When it comes to the cat, maintaining peace and harmony is up to me.
This guest article originally appeared on YourTango.com: Do You Apologize Too Much? What You Need to Know About Saying Sorry.