Updated: Sep 20, 2019
“Sorry to keep you!”
“Sorry, could you explain that?”
“Sorry, I have to disagree with you.”
Or, probably the most nonsensical of all, someone bumps into you yet you instinctively blurt out, “Oops, sorry!”
There is a tendency to over-apologize, especially as women. But regardless of whether we intend it as a sign of consideration or a means to maintain niceties, over-apologizing can negatively affect how others perceive us, and it is something we need to consider as health care providers, colleagues, and leaders.
Is there an explanation for this?
In a study conducted by the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo, students of both sexes were asked to write diary entries regarding the number of offenses they committed (called the transgressor perspective) or experienced (called the victim perspective).
Offenses were categorized into the following:
Relational (i.e. insulting someone)
Failed obligation (i.e. failing to complete chores)
Inconvenience (i.e. calling the wrong number)
Physical or material (i.e. bumping into someone)
Women reported more offenses than men, both from the transgressor and victim perspectives. Women also offered more apologies than men. Notably, women and men offered apologies for an equal proportion of their offenses (about 81%) and apologies from both sexes included a similar number of elements of a comprehensive apology. In the second part of the study, students rated the severity of their offense and whether the other party deserved an apology in both imagined conflict scenarios and their own recalled offenses. Women judged the offenses to be more severe and indicated the victim was more deserving of an apology. One possible explanation for these results is that women have a lower threshold compared to men for what constitutes offensive behavior and thus apologize more frequently.
Another study, done by Deborah Tannen on linguistic styles in the workplace showed that women tended to say, "I'm sorry" more than men, often in an effort to show concern. However the use of these frequent ritual apologies in the workplace may make women appear "weaker, less confident, and literally more blameworthy" than men who do not use the same apologies. (2)
How can we use this information as health care providers?
First, I do believe that there is NO substitute for a sincere apology. If a patient is suffering or a family member has lost a loved one, an apology from a caring health care professional may provide even a small degree of comfort in an incredibly difficult time. In other situations, for example those in which you were clearly in the wrong, an apology demonstrates maturity and acceptance of responsibility. It can be powerful and a sign of strength—to your patients, colleagues, or superiors.
For other situations, instead of blurting out, “Sorry!”, take a moment to pause and consider what emotion you are actually trying to express. Is it gratitude and appreciation? Is it embarrassment for not understanding something or for needing clarification?
Let’s reconsider the earlier examples:
Apologetic: “Sorry to keep you.”
Straightforward: “Thank you for staying late to help me.”
Apologetic: “Sorry, can you explain that?”
Straightforward: “I’d like to get clarification on that point.”
Apologetic: “Sorry, I have to disagree with you.”
Straightforward: “That’s an interesting point. I have to disagree with you though because of reasons X, Y, and Z.”
Lastly, be true to yourself! If done in a respectful manner, there is no need to apologize for disagreeing with others, sharing your opinion, and confidently speaking your mind. After all, your opinion could make all the difference when it comes to the health and well-being of your patients. And that is truly all that matters.
1. Schumann, K. (2011). When and Why Women Apologize More than Men, (Doctoral dissertation). Waterloo: University of Waterloo.
2. Tannen D. The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why. Harvard Business Review. 1995;(September–October 1995). https://hbr.org/1995/09/the-power-of-talk-who-gets-heard-and-why. Accessed May 13, 2019.