Are you an “over-apologizer?” Do you say sorry for things that aren’t your fault or don’t actually require forgiveness?
The other day I met a friend for lunch. She was running about 15 minutes behind schedule. When she arrived, she immediately apologized for her tardiness (due to traffic, and still within what most would consider acceptable limits). “No big deal,” I responded. Through the course of the meal, I noticed, that she also issued apologies to the waiter when she had questions about the menu, after she sneezed, when she requested more water, and when she needed to go to the bathroom (probably from all of that water!). Noticing a trend of largely unnecessary apologies, I asked her if she’d ever considered herself to be an “over-apologizer.”
Why do people apologize?
Saying sorry is generally one of the earliest lessons we learn from our parents. We are taught from a young age to fess up and ask for forgiveness when we’ve done something to hurt another person, either on purpose or by accident.
But oftentimes, people use the word “sorry” almost reflexively, like my sweet and considerate friend. They don’t want to upset anyone or they want to avoid conflict at all costs. Maybe they hate rocking the boat or are worried about eliciting an overreaction (this often happens when a person grows up in a home where a parent was easily angered or was unstable in some way). Sometimes a person is just extremely empathetic. They can’t NOT apologize when they think they’ve hurt or inconvenienced another person, regardless of how trivially.
I’m Sorry But What’s The Problem With Over-Apologizing?
Apologizing for situations or things you have little control over can backfire. Some research shows that it can impact self-confidence as well as make other people think you are ineffectual. It can also reduce the impact of future apologies.
A “Sorry” is an acknowledgment of someone doing something wrong. A “Thank you” is an acknowledgment of someone doing something right.
If you find yourself reflexively over-apologizing, you might consider saying “thank you” instead. Ask yourself the reason for the apology: Are you trying to right a wrong or are you actually wanting to acknowledge gratitude for someone else’s virtues? Are you really saying “thank you for making adjustments for me?”
In the case of my friend, she could say to the waitress, “Thanks for giving us extra time to review the menu,” or “Thanks for answering our questions.” In the workplace, this could be a co-worker saying, “I appreciate your patience on this project. It took me a little longer than I anticipated.” In the home, this may be a mother saying to her child, “Thanks for handling that situation so well. I know you were expecting to get ice cream tonight and you’re probably disappointed Cold Stone was closed.”
This subtle shift in acknowledging another’s virtues and efforts rather than apologizing for your own needs or for events out of your control can help you break the over-apologizing cycle.
So, next time you’re tempted to reflexively apologize when amends are unnecessary, try saying “thank you” instead. Notice the change in the dynamics in your conversation, as you shift your focus towards appreciation, and empower your thinking.