The price of over-apologizing
By JENIBELLE HSU
I was looking through my messages with a friend, and I noticed an amusing trend: I say “sorry” to her nearly every other time we talked. And I have known her for about three years, so you can do the math.
This trend does not simply occur with my friend. When I bump into other students during passing period, I immediately blurt out “sorry!” despite it being my fault or not. As I drown in my own pool of college applications, I find myself over-apologizing to my friends for failing to fulfill my promises to help them with school or personal challenges.
As one of the most commonly heard words in our everyday lives, why do we say “sorry” so often anyway? Is it because our compassionate nature compels us to empathize with others? Or is it because our own sense of inferiority and self-pity overwhelm us and an apology is the closest invention to a “clear” button for our mistakes?
Of course, the reason is different for each situation, and more often than not, we will say the magical word to acknowledge our mistakes and move towards self-improvement. However, people who grew up with strict rules and high expectations may find a need to apologize even when they do not make a mistake. Rather, failing to fulfill others’ expectations is itself an error—which, in the minds of “people pleasers,” is the gravest and most disappointing mistake.
And when the bomb dropped that they “failed,” they over-apologize, but such an excessive dose of apologies may create the illusion that they are always in the wrong and diminish their self-confidence.
As the apology reflex carries into our adolescent years, it may tinker with identity development. Dr. Hinshaw, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, describes in his book The Triple Bind that one of the main aspects of adolescence is “individuation,” or the process of becoming a distinct person. Over-apologizers may restrict their “personality options” to always be polite, nice and humble, but with this tradeoff, they sacrifice their individuality and adhere to an impossible standard of perfection.
On the career ladder, unnecessary apologies may hinder one’s climb to the top. As over-apologizers downplay their faculties in hopes of acquiring their coworkers and employer’s respect, they may, contrarily, diminish their own self-respect and others’ respect for them. In particular, when we perceive that we are under the mercy of those who are “more superior,” we shrink ourselves at the company table and hesitate to speak in authority. Too-polite statements such as “Sorry to interrupt, may I say add something?” merely reinforce one’s illusion of a power imbalance, when in reality, his or her colleagues want him or her to contribute to the team.
Yet, apologies are so ingrained into everyday interactions that we long associate the ring of “sorry!” with kindness and sincerity. In fact, Harvard Business School reveals in a study that “when a young man approached strangers in a train station on a rainy day and said, ‘I’m so sorry about the rain! Can I borrow your phone?’ he was successful 47% of the time, compared with just 9% if he simply asked to borrow a phone.” Similarly, a competitor may downplay his or her success and apologize to the losers in order to express concern for their feelings.
And mark my words: in no way am I denouncing the everyday practice of apologizing. During tough times, such small apologies can go a long way and are rightfully part of being a good friend and person.
The challenge for people pleasers is determining when it is necessary or appropriate to apologize. In order to strike the right balance between narcissism and submissiveness, we must evaluate our own actions and ask ourselves if the situation truly calls for an apology before letting our reflexes or bad habits take over. Keep your apologies genuine and heartfelt, and make your statements succinct and assertive; with practice, your “sorry syndrome” can be cured.