Sorry about that: Why you apologize for everything

June 2, 2017 Providence Health Team

Sorry, but you may have a bad habit … of apologizing to people for no reason.

Without even realizing it, many people go through their whole lives as perpetual apologists.

Of all the mannerisms people use in everyday speech, habitual apologizing is one of the most common, yet it tends to go virtually unnoticed. Apology-speak is so prevalent that people will often begin a sentence with the very word sorry—as in, “Sorry to bother you, but … ”

People may not think of themselves as apologetic. They may feel they're perfectly capable of handling most situations with confidence. But apologetic language finds its way into their everyday speech anyway.

Why do people say they’re sorry when they’re not – and they don’t even have a reason to be?

There are many theories as to why people get into the apology habit.

From childhood, we are conditioned to be polite. Adults teach children that by being nice to others, they are more likely to be treated nicely in return. "Please," "thank you" and "sorry" are among the first words children learn. Of course, politeness is not harmful. But with an eagerness to please, the apology can morph into a sort of crutch for navigating social situations.

People may also over apologize to avoid conflict. By apologizing up front and taking responsibility for a problem, they may hope to make any unpleasantness go away—whether or not they deserve the blame in the first place. Similarly, apologizing may be a way to seek reassurance. (“Sorry I didn’t do a great job.” “Oh no, you did just fine.”)

Apologizing can also arise from a genuine desire to express respect. However, when people get into the habit of apologizing excessively, they may start to internalize a sense of inferiority. Repeated apologies can reinforce the subconscious belief that others' views are more important than their own, so they may adopt a deferential position – and stay there. In this way, people can sabotage their desire to succeed.

Worse still, even if people don’t feel undeserving of success, their constant apologizing can teach their co-workers and bosses to think of them that way. (If Jane keeps saying she’s sorry for doing dumb things, she must be dumb.)

Finally, when someone says they're sorry all the time, it stops sounding sincere, which further erodes other people's trust. In many ways, using the apology to forestall problems can end up creating new, unnecessary ones.

Snip “sorry” from your speech

Peppering your speech with apologies may seem harmless enough, but it can undermine your relationships, your career and your self-respect. Here are some ways to start purging “sorry” from your speech habits.

Pause and reset

When you catch yourself saying “sorry” automatically, take a moment to ask yourself why. Did you do something wrong? If not, what made you say it? Just spending a few minutes to reflect on the process can help you reprogram your habit of apologizing.

Identify the triggers

Whenever “sorry” pops out of your mouth, take note of what made you say it. Was it when you entered the boss’s office, bumped into someone at the door, or asked a relative for something? Once you begin to understand what’s triggering the apology response, you can start to take control of the habit.

Change up your vocabulary

Try replacing “sorry” with phrases that better communicate what you mean. Instead of apologizing for needing help, say, “Can you please explain how it’s done?” Instead of saying “sorry” at the beginning of a question, say, “If you don’t mind telling me, can you show me what to do?” The word “sorry” shouldn’t be an all-purpose tool to use for every situation. Write down a list of replacement phrases and practice using them.

Turn the negative into a positive

When someone does something nice for you, don’t apologize for not doing it yourself – thank them instead. “Sorry” is not a good substitute for gratitude. And if someone criticizes you, you can thank them for their input – and put a negative scenario onto a more positive footing.

There's nothing wrong with expressing sincere regret when the situation warrants. But the next time you say you're sorry, it should be when you mean it.

Do you have a tip for better communication?

Share a comment below.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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