Sorry, not sorry? How apologizing too much is perceived
"Dr. Mathison to OR 6" blared over the speaker system one morning. Heeding the call, off I went to do a routine ear procedure I've done thousands of times before. I use a special microscope to inspect the ear and deep within the canal, to the eardrum and beyond. But on this occasion, I struggled with the microscope and made numerous attempts to position and focus it. "What is wrong with me today?" I wondered.
I soon discovered that the wrong lens had been placed. "So sorry to bother, but could you get me the other lens?" I asked the circulating nurse and she promptly ran to get it. I switched the 400mm lens to a 250mm, and I was done with the procedure in just a few minutes.
I was so quick to blame myself, not just this time, but many other times. I always default to "What am I doing wrong?" In work and life, parenting, and even in cooking, I place blame internally.
Turns out I'm not alone.
Linguistic analysts and leadership experts agree that women say "sorry" a lot, sometimes to their own detriment.
Cardiac anesthesiology professor Sasha Shillcutt writes in the online medical magazine KevinMD, that when we apologize for things we are not responsible for, we take a step backwards in the advancement of women in the workplace.
In her work, she trains residents to do challenging procedures in the stressful environment of the cardiac OR and cringes when she routinely hears female residents say "I'm sorry." These women are not at fault for the situation. The patients are sick. The procedures are difficult.
And whether they mean to or not, with their apology, they are saying this: "I am not as competent, I am causing this delay, and I am sorry for this fact."
Why is there a difference in the way males and females react to workplace challenges, Shilcutt wondered? In the 2016 McKinsey Study on Women in the Workplace, differences were found between the top personality strengths of successful female and male leaders.
While male and female leaders shared several top attributes, male leaders had 'achievement' as their top strength, while the female leaders scored highest for 'responsibility.' This suggests female leaders tend to take more self-responsibility for actions in the workplace.
Sometimes this comes across as weakness. A few years ago, Pantene aired a commercial that made a social commentary on how women, more than men, feel apologetic about sharing their ideas, or their space, or ... everything, actually. How many times do we pre-apologize for asking our "stupid question?" Isn't it just a question that we should feel OK about asking?
Saying "I'm sorry" has become a cultural norm, and we might not even be aware that we do it, like a longer form of "um." But it might also reflect a lack of confidence.
In a 2014 Atlantic article "The Confidence Gap," authors Katy Kay and Claire Shipman state: "A lack of confidence informs a number of familiar female habits. Take the penchant many women have for assuming the blame when things go wrong, while crediting circumstance — or other people — for their successes. Men seem to do the opposite. One way women tend to assume blame? By over-apologizing."
But sometimes "I'm sorry" isn't an apology. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics from Georgetown University has written extensively on the topic of what women should and should not say at work.
"Often, it has nothing whatsoever to do with an apology but just taking the other person's feelings into account," she says. "And sometimes, it's a way to get the other person to apologize."
Another complicating factor for women is that by being too direct and unapologetic, "they're seen as too aggressive," Tannen writes, and that doesn't fly well either.
What can we change? Our responses as individuals.
Before you say "I'm sorry", Shillcutt challenges you to think about the situation. Is it your fault, or just the situation?
If it's the right thing to do, stand up straight, look the person in the eye and say "I apologize." But only do it when you're truly sorry.
Unapologetically yours, Dr. Sue.
Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.