Sorry Seems To Be The Handiest Word

Do you say sorry more than eight times a day?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Do you say sorry more than eight times a day? Donna Tang says over apologising is holding women back. Here’s why you should change tack.

"I’m sorry, gravity seems to be working overtime today..."

How often do you say “sorry”? You might be surprised – try keeping count today. A British survey found that adults say “sorry” an average of eight times, and up to 20 times, daily. When I kept count, I hit 32.

It seems like a harmless habit at first. Many of us use “sorry” like punctuation, as in “Sorry, did you get my e-mail?”. We say it in place of  “excuse me”. It’s like a social lubricant we use to get along, without really meaning it.

I didn’t think it was a problem until I came across the Daily Apology Checklist (right) from Sarah Cooper’s new book, How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings. After laughing through half the list, I started to feel uncomfortable about how close to home it hit – and how ridiculous the things we apologise for seem to be when they’re written down.

It got me thinking: Is it possible to apologise too much?

No Offence

I found I often said “sorry” because I was afraid of annoying someone, even strangers, such as cashiers when I paid for purchases with a $50 bill. This could be a problem. Constantly second-guessing others’ feelings for fear that you’re angering them is neither enjoyable nor productive. Worse, if you often apologise to counteract your own feelings of guilt – like I did when someone asked me for help at a time when I’d made other plans (“So sorry, I’ve something on!”) – this might reveal that you have trouble with saying no, and establishing healthy boundaries.

My Bad

But warning bells really sounded when I noticed that I would apologise even when I was the wronged party. Once, I was interrupted – and worse, being mansplained to – and I said “sorry, please go ahead”, as if I shouldn’t even have been speaking in the first place. It came to a head when someone playing Pokemon Go suddenly veered right into me, stepping on my new shoes, and I found myself apologising while wiping my spilt drink off  my top. Sorry, um, that I wasn’t watching where you were going?

Again, I’m not alone. In an experiment, British anthropologist Kate Fox found that 80 per cent of strangers she bumped into said sorry even though they weren’t at fault. But this time, that was no consolation. I realised that repeatedly begging pardon for simply existing, often from strangers who didn’t matter, was taking an insidious toll on my self-esteem.

I’d become quite paranoid about annoying others, and was half-convinced I was an inconvenience a lot of the time. I was starting to mean those “sorry to bother you”s.

Look Who’s Sorry

At around this time, I got an earful from a friend because the first thing I did when we finally met, after a string of appointment changing, was to say sorry because I knew she’d moved a meeting to accommodate me. “How about ‘thank you’, instead?” she scolded. “If I did something nice, doesn’t ‘sorry’ just negate it?”

Since it seemed a bad time for my most predictable reply, I was forced to swallow it and consider what she said. I was robbing her of her considerate act in a way, wasn’t I? She was an adult who’d made a choice, and I’d apologised as if I’d forced her into it. It had the unintended effect of shifting the focus from her to myself, sidestepping her sweet gesture instead of acknowledging it. And on my part, instead of being delighted and appreciative that my friend wanted to meet me enough to go to the trouble of shifting her meeting, I’d replaced it with a heavy feeling of unworthiness.

Over-apologising wasn’t just affecting me, but also my relationships. Now, that really made me sorry.

Sorry Not Sorry

I now make an effort to be mindful when I feel the impulse to type or say the word. I pause to consider if it’s warranted, and try to switch my language to say “thank you” instead: “Thank you for waiting”, instead of “Sorry I’m late”; “Thank you for making time for me”, instead of “Sorry I know you’re busy”; and “Thank you for doing that”, instead of “Sorry to trouble you”. It’s a surprisingly hard habit to break, but I’m keeping at it because it does help me feel better about life. I carry less unnecessary guilt, and I worry less about whether people are upset with me. Focusing on people’s small kindnesses makes me happier than guessing at their potential irritations. And while “sorry” rarely brings a smile, “thank you” often does.

What about the “unwarranted sorries”? I now cut those out and get to the point instead. I’d observed that I most often said unnecessary “sorries” in work situations with men to soften how I came across, since I’ve been called a ball-breaker many times. I’d apologise whenever I had to remind a subordinate to do, well, his job. I said “forgive me” when my opinion differed from that of male co-workers who had no qualms about regularly interrupting me. I even said sorry each time I simply spoke up in male dominated meetings.

I no longer do any of that. And if there are men who don’t like it? Well, I’m not sorry.
My Reading Room
My Reading Room
We got Sarah Cooper, author of the hilariously snarky How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings, to weigh in on being too sorry.
My Reading Room
How To Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings, $22.95, from Kinokuniya.
My Reading Room

Why do you think women over apologise? I think we all want to be liked, and the fear of being seen as a bitch is overpowering. Most of the time, we don’t even mean it when we say sorry. We’re really just saying: “Please don’t think I’m a bad person, I’m not a bad person I swear, please, please think I’m a nice person!” I believe this is why women apologise more than men do. Being nice is often seen as a requirement for women just to get in the door. If we don’t at least nail being seen as nice, we don’t move on to the next step in whatever situation it is. I don’t think that is necessarily expected of men – they are often given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their personality, their competence and their niceness, whereas women have to prove it.


Is this a problem?It’s a problem for both parties involved. The “apologiser” thinks apologising will win them points, but it sometimes makes them look weak, especially when they’re apologising for something that’s not their fault, something they don’t need to apologise for, or something they don’t genuinely feel sorry about.

As for the “apologisee”, it ends up making them feel like they were wronged in some way. Of course, if they do feel wronged and appreciate the apology, that’s fine. But when we over-apologise at times when it isn’t necessary, it can plant the thought that others have been wronged when they weren’t. Whereas if you didn’t apologise, the other person might not even have noticed anything was wrong.


How do we stop doing this? When you start an e-mail with an apology, think to yourself: Is there a better way to say this without using the word “sorry”? What if you didn’t apologise at all and just answered the question? And in person, just be more aware of when you say you’re sorry, and you will eventually be able to stop yourself before doing it in a case where it isn’t necessary.