Lilly’s Blog: The Trouble with Constant Apologizing

By | August 9th, 2012 | 12 comments

sorryphotoMy friend Amanda is a serial apologizer. She apologizes for being two seconds late, she apologizes when people lovingly tease her, and she apologizes for laughing too loudly. I vividly remember walking to class with her freshman year and someone knocked into her in the stairwell. Amanda’s immediate response was to say sorry to the guy who had nearly sent her tumbling. It seemed as though Amanda felt like she owed the world an apology for her very existence.

The part of me that tries to defy Good Girl expectations wishes Amanda would just yell at the jerk in the stairwell. But I understand where she’s coming from. In Girl World, where the slightest faux pas can make your friend inexplicably upset, you learn to apologize. Girls have come to think of apologies as preventive medicine, daily vitamins to be consumed habitually.

This notion evolved because we have all observed or been involved in a conflict that was miraculously resolved by an apology. I’m not talking about the scenario in which two friends are fighting until someone realizes her fault. She then apologizes by acknowledging her wrongdoing, expresses remorse without making excuses, offers to remedy the situation. Hugging and forgiving ensues. That scenario is pure Disney.

Instead, consider this scene: one of the girls becomes bored with fighting and apologizes by mumbling “sorry,” complete with eye rolls and hair flipping. As soon as she apologizes, the fight is over. Apologies, regardless of how pathetic they are, are instant cures because continuing an argument, even if someone feels truly hurt, is considered mean.

The resounding consensus among girls is that only a bully would dream of not accepting an apology. Good Girls forgive and forget. If apologies instantly end unpleasant conflicts, it seems a logical conclusion to assume that apologizing all the time is likely to prevent conflicts. Amanda is not a pushover, but people assume her constant apologizing means she is willing to do anything to avoid conflict.

I wasn’t the only one concerned by her penchant for penance. Sophomore year we had a teacher who hated when Amanda apologized unnecessarily. Once Amanda met with him outside of class to discuss a paper, and he mentioned that she forgot a cover page. What did Amanda do? You guessed it, she apologized. The teacher chastised her and explained she should just fix her mistake. Amanda responded by saying, bless her heart, sorry.

They had similar interactions over the course of the semester. But Amanda was shocked when she got her report card. At our school it is customary for teachers to write comments about the student in addition to reporting grades. The teacher wrote something to the effect that Amanda would be “taken advantage of” if she did not learn to stop saying sorry. Amanda and her parents were slightly troubled. Was the teacher suggesting that peers or teachers would underestimate her? Or was he warning her of a far more insidious scenario? I think the teacher’s intentions were pure, but he chose the wrong words.

I may not approve of Amanda’s habit in social settings because I think it makes her seem like a pushover. But I also understand that Amanda developed her ability to apologize because she observed the magical power “sorry” has over girls. Amanda knows that girls who apologize are rewarded with relationships without confrontation.

The teacher, on the other hand, has a point. In the real world apologies are only worth as much as the sincerity behind them. Apologizing for minor things seems like bad form; how sincerely regretful can one really feel about an erroneous cover page?

More importantly, the teacher understood Amanda’s apologies sent the wrong message to those around her about her relationship with power. Amanda divorces herself from her power to be rightfully indignant about being bumped into. Apologies are graceful, subtle ways for Good Girls to assure people they won’t make any waves. When an apology is actually warranted, the apologizer is often seen as the “bigger person.” But when girls apologize gratuitously, they forfeit their power to disagree, challenge or be upset in confrontations of any magnitude.

I don’t know if Amanda will ever stop apologizing to the person who cuts her in line. Maybe she would learn not to say sorry so indiscriminately if an odd comment on a report card wasn’t the first time an adult tried to discuss the implications of apologizing with her.

**First published on October 19, 2009

Lilly was a guest blogger for Read more about her here. To learn more about the culture of apologizing among girls and get strategies to stop overapologizing, read chapters three and nine of The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence.

12 Responses to “Lilly’s Blog: The Trouble with Constant Apologizing”

  • Gloria says:

    If Amanda is sincere with her apology each time she says it, then she is truly a rare girl in today’s world. If she is such a girl, I hope I can make friends with her. May I have her email address? 🙂

  • […] I was reading through Rachel Simmons’ blog this morning, and stumbled on this old post by Rachel’s guest-blogger, Lilly, about how some girls constantly apologize and why it can be […]

  • Adelaide says:

    A lot of Good Girls (myself included) find it hard to either forget or forgive. We think because we have forgiven, we must forget.

    My motto is “Never complain, never explain, never apologise”. There are times when all three are appropriate, of course, but they tend to be in emergencies rather than in everyday interactions. Of course if you can do something before the situation becomes an emergency.

  • JB says:

    I told a friend who was also a serial apologizer that saying sorry constantly devalued the times she truly meant it. There are other phrases, like, “excuse me,” or, “hold on a sec,” that are not the same as an apology but might be closer to what she really means.

  • Kelsey says:

    Apologies are polite, and to me atleast they aren’t magical fixes for things. You can say you’re sorry all you want, but if you’ve offended me than a few simple words won’t do anything.

    • Lilly says:

      Hi Kelsey,
      I’m glad to hear you don’t let people take the easy way out. Like you, I have a pretty easy time spotting an insincere apology. Today, when my friend apologized as if it was a question it was pretty clear she didn’t really feel sorry. That’s the easy part. What you decide to do after spotting a lame apology is tricky. Many girls do consider apologies “magical fixes” so if you do not accept an apology you seem mean and unnecessarily unforgiving. Should you makeup and move on? Or should you wait for true remorse? Also, if a friend feels hurt by you, and you don’t think you have done anything wrong, should you apologize to repair the friendship or should you honor the fact that apologies should be backed by true remorse? I’m not sure. What to do you do?

      • Kripa Dongol says:

        I might be one of your serial apologizers, but perhaps its the non-native speaker in me that says “Sorry?” instead of “pardon me”, “excuse me” and a bunch of other phrases. When I really do apologize though, I stop, pause and say “I’m [really] sorry”. Maybe it really is just a habit, and doesn’t need to be as analyzed?

  • Deb says:

    Very insightful and well said. For whatever reason this girl adopted an overly-apologetic habit, it devalues her and will not serve her well through the long term.

  • Simone says:

    Lilly– I love your point about how us Good Girls feel like we are taking the high road, rising above, when we say sorry, but really we are running away. That whole thought/action link again! Good Girl recovery isn’t just breaking bad habits– we need to re-wire the whole system!

  • et says:

    My high school physics teacher always told us, after we apologized for something, “Sorry means you’re not going to do it again.” This, of course, isn’t true, but it did make us stop and think a little bit more about whatever had happened, and whether “sorry” was the right response.

  • Lilly says:

    I wish more girls helped their friends become aware of verbal crutches they may use. However, if I used your technique, I’d have to carry around a Super Soaker!

  • Catbus says:

    I knew someone like this in college. I adopted the practice of shooting her with a water pistol every time she apologized for something that wasn’t her fault. Maybe I ought to have chosen an approach that was more respectful of her dignity, but it had the desired effect.

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