Written by Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D. Tuesday, October 16 2012
|“It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.”
– British Author, P.G. Wodehouse
OK, never saying you’re sorry might be a little extreme but doing so exponentially less is something most women would benefit from. Men and women have different relationships with apologies. Elton John’s lyrics proclaim, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.” Apparently that’s truer for men than for women, whose behaviors are more closely aligned with Brenda Lee’s plaintive cry, “I’m sorry. So sorry.”
Researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada found that men apologize less frequently than women not because they’re afraid of looking weak but because their bar for what warrants contrition is higher than a woman’s. In a related study, men and women were asked to rate three offenses on a seven-point scale. Are we surprised to learn that women rated each offense as more serious than men? The take-away from the two studies is that men apologize less because they think they’ve done fewer things wrong based on how they measure a mistake!
Here’s an example. I was playing golf with a foursome, two of whom I didn’t know, and one of the men hit an incredibly bad shot into the rough. Wanting to show some empathy for the poor guy I said, “Oh, that’s too bad.” His response? “That wasn’t a bad shot. It just didn’t go in the direction I wanted it to.” Even in the face of what I would consider an obvious blunder, he didn’t see it that way and, therefore, didn’t act apologetically – or speak to me for the remainder of the round for that matter.
Apologizing for unintentional, low profile, non-egregious errors erodes our self-confidence and, in turn, the confidence others have in us. Whether it’s inadvertently bumping into someone on the street or making a small mistake in the office, a woman is far more likely to apologize than a man. I’ve noticed on the tennis court, when a woman accidentally hits the ball into the next court she often says “I’m sorry” as a way of asking the players to return the ball to her court. Men, on the other hand, say “Thank you,” which is totally in sync with tennis etiquette.
Women will apologize rather than confront the real source of the mistake – the other person’s poor or nonexistent direction. It’s a conflict reducing technique, but one that makes you look like you’re at fault when, in fact, you’re not. For example, your boss gives you an ambiguous assignment then leaves the country for 3 weeks. You do the best you can with unclear instructions only to hear when she returns, “This isn’t what I had in mind.” In response, you say, “I’m sorry. I guess I didn’t understand.” What are you sorry for? You’re the one who now has to spend time redoing the assignment because of her lack of clarity.
Another reason why women apologize more than men is because they’re tuned into relationships and don’t want to risk damaging them. Saying “I’m sorry” is really just a way to ensure no feelings are hurt or to head off at the pass any anger that might ensue. In this regard, you can consider it a verbal salve.
Let me give you some tips for how to cut down on the mea culpas:
- Start counting the number of times you apologize unnecessarily. You’ll be surprised at how many times the words flow from your lips. Consciously reduce that number by saving your apologies for big time mistakes – and believe me, there aren’t many of those.
- When you do make a mistake worth apologizing for, do it only once then move into a problem-solving mode. Don’t linger over the remorse, but rather focus on what went wrong and what you plan to do in the future to ensure it doesn’t happen again. That’s all most people want to know.
- If a mistake was made because you were given wrong or insufficient information, offer an unapologetic statement such as, “Based on the information initially provided to me, I had no idea that was your expectation. Tell me more about what you had in mind, and I’ll be happy to make the necessary revisions.” This very diplomatically puts the responsibility where it belongs, yet graciously shows that you are willing to do whatever it takes to make it right.
- Avoid using apologies that put you in a one-down position as a way of ensuring you’re liked. Always begin from a place of equality – regardless of the level of person with whom you are dealing. He or she might have a higher position than you, but that doesn’t make the person any better than you.
- Don’t apologize for the choices you make. As long as your choice isn’t illegal, unethical or inauthentic, it’s yours to make. However things turn out, you did the best you could to make the right choice with the information you had at the time. Given that we only know in retrospect if a choice or action will work out, apologies are unnecessary.
- Accept your limits. Nobody can do it all. Don’t feel inadequate and don’t apologize for the fact that your repertoire doesn’t include every talent or skill in the universe, or that you didn’t perform as well as Wonder Woman might.
More advice on being more assertive:
Does the thought of a meeting with a C-suite executive make you break out in a nervous sweat? Sally Williamson offers three specific concepts to practice and three missteps to avoid at all costs.
At the first-ever "High Performance Women Corporate Challenge” presented by Porsche and Womenetics, 20 women learned invaluable leadership lessons by racing some of the world's fastest cars.
Jane Goldner offers strategies for women to stand in their power, which essentially means that you know who you are and are confident in making choices and trade-offs in your personal and professional life.
Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D. is the author of international bestselling books such as “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office,” “See Jane Lead” and “Nice Girls Just Don’t Get It.” To learn more about her or to take free self-assessments to help identify your career development needs, visit her website, www.drloisfrankel.com.