We often hear that women apologize more than men—and that it isn’t always a healthy or effective thing to do. Recently comedian Amy Schumer did a sketch about female thought leaders at a conference who were so busy apologizing on stage that they never got the opportunity to actually share their expertise.
Apologizing can be a good thing—a sign that a child is empathetic and has strong social skills. But saying you’re sorry too much can backfire.
For instance, when a girl starts a statement by saying, “Sorry, but… ” or “I might be wrong, but …” she may think she’s being polite, but it undermines what she’s about to say. “It says ‘I don’t feel confident in what I’m about to say or my right to say it,’ ” explains Rachel Busman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist.
So what causes girls to be prone to apologize, and what can parents do to help?
As girls grow up, the messages they receive about what “good” behavior looks like get more and more complicated and confusing. In his book The Triple Bind, Stephen Hinshaw, PhD, explains that as they reach adolescence, girls are increasingly asked to conform to what he views as “an impossible set of standards.”
One of the key tasks of adolescence is what’s called “individuation,” or the process of becoming a unique individual, explains Dr. Hinshaw, who is a clinical psychologist. Boys, he says, “are traditionally seen as having more of the skills that lead to individuation: assertiveness, self-confidence, expressiveness, and commitment to one’s own agenda.”
From a young age boys are praised and encouraged when they show direct, confident behaviors—winning a game or climbing to the highest branch.
Girls, Dr. Hinshaw explains, are also told to be ambitious, smart, and successful. But for them the directive comes with conditions that hamper individuation.
- Be confident, but not conceited
- Be smart, but no one likes a know-it-all
- Ambition is good, but trying too hard is bad
- Be assertive, but only if it doesn’t upset anyone else
The focus on empathy
These confusing messages reflect the fact that girls are often expected to be empathetic and hyper-aware of how their actions affect others. In fact, one study of college age men and women claimed that both sexes apologized in equal proportion for what they considered to be offensive behavior, but women reported committing more offenses than men, indicating that their threshold for perceiving offense was much lower.
This could be because girls and women are conditioned to be more attuned to—and responsible for—how their behavior affects others. This empathetic awareness complicates behaviors associated with success: winning, drive, and competition.
For example, if a boy wins a race, he’s less likely to consider how his victory affected his competitors, whereas a girl might win and be happy for it, but downplay her success out of concern for the loser’s feelings.
“Girls,” explains Dr. Hinshaw, “are more often rewarded for focusing on others’ feelings while boys are more often rewarded for asserting themselves.”
The bossy problem
Girls who don’t play by these rules often experience negative social feedback. A girl who is assertive might be called bossy, a girl who shows confidence in her ideas, conceited. Though still told to work hard, get ahead, and be successful, girls are often shamed, especially by other female peers, if they appear pushy, overly confident, or too forward.
“No one wants to be seen as bossy,” says Dr. Busman. “So it can be tempting for a girl to use qualifying language to avoid being viewed in a negative light by her peers or authority figures.”
Girls begin to pepper their language with apologies and qualifiers that turn statements into suggestions and make requests feel less demanding. “I know” becomes “I’m not sure, but…” “I have a question” turns into “Sorry, would it be okay if I asked a question?”
Tuning into these conversational tics is the first step to helping your daughter use more confident language. Here are a few to listen for:
Over-apologizing: Apologizing too often or when there’s no actual reason to do so. For example, a girl apologizing to a waitress for not being ready to order, or an automatic “Sorry!” if she brushes the arm of the person next to her in class.
Starting sentences with “sorry”: This gets girls off on the wrong foot from the get-go, says Dr. Busman. “Beginning a comment with an apology immediately puts her in a one-down position,” she explains. “It instantly delegitimizes any authority she has.”
Hedging: Another stealthier version of apologetic language is “hedging”—not exactly apologizing, but still expressing a lack of confidence. Examples of common hedges include:
- “Excuse me, can I ask…”
- “I might be wrong, but …”
- “I don’t know, but…”
So how can parents help girls learn speak more confidently?
Watch your language
The first thing parents can do is tune into their own linguistic habits.”Kids are great imitators,” says Dr. Busman. Girls who hear parents—especially moms—over-apologizing or using hedging language are likely to pick up the habit themselves. Being mindful of your own language will set an example of confident speech and show her you support her learning to do the same.
One of the reasons girls use hedging or apologetic language is because it feels more polite. Although all genders are encouraged to have good manners, a heavier value is often placed on girls’ ability to be nice, polite, and compliant.
There’s nothing wrong with being polite—if the situation calls for it, says Dr. Busman. “Saying ‘excuse me,’ if she’s actually interrupting a conversation is completely reasonable and shows awareness. But prefacing questions with ‘excuse me’ when she’s not interrupting sends the message that she feels like she needs permission to express her ideas.”
Instead of overprizing politeness, help your daughter focus on being direct first, and polite second. Using clear language demonstrates confidence and makes it more likely her point will be heard. Work together to test out alternative statements that are polite, but direct. For example, compare the following responses to a lab partner who is struggling with a task:
- Indirect response: “Sorry, I’m not really an expert, but maybe I can help?”
- “Direct response: “I know how to do this, would you like me to show you?”
The direct response is still polite, but it also communicates that she’s comfortable taking the lead and confident in her skills.
Disagreement is okay
Another reason girls qualify and apologize is to defuse or avoid situations that could lead to disagreements. It can feel scary to commit to a statement that others might not like, but learning to be comfortable with disagreement and debate will make her more resilient and give her a healthy toolkit for managing adversity in the future.
Keep apologies real
Of course, not all apologies are unnecessary, but it’s important to know the difference between situations that call for a real, heartfelt apology and times when she’s just saying sorry out of habit. Start by asking her to be mindful of why she’s apologizing or being indirect.
For example, if she has a question during a presentation in class there’s no reason to begin her statement with “I’m sorry, can I ask a question?” On the flip side, if she interrupts a classmate or talks out of turn, that might be something to apologize for. Bringing her awareness to when—and why—she’s apologizing will help her be more confident and make her true apologies more meaningful.
Tools for the future
Helping your daughter drop unnecessary apologies and begin using clear, direct language will give her a powerful tool for success in the future.
No matter who she’s speaking to—friends, teachers, co-workers, or even someday the employees of her own company—knowing how to communicate with confidence sends the message that she’s self-assured, proud of her skills, and comfortable expressing her ideas.
And she’s not sorry about it one bit.