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Women becoming more aware of tendency to over-apologize

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FARGO – “Sorry, can I ask a stupid question?”

“Sorry, do you have a minute?”

“Sorry, but I need those files.”

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Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Women don’t need to add a “sorry” to every request or statement they make, but many have a tendency to do so, almost automatically, which some say can hold them back, especially in the workplace.

With Pantene’s “Sorry, Not Sorry” ad campaign showing women how to correct the behavior, Jessica Bennett’s “I’m Sorry, But Women Really Need to Stop Apologizing” June piece in Time magazine, and mentions in other publications, the issue has been getting a lot of attention lately.

This isn’t about situations when an apology is appropriate. (By all means, take responsibility when you should. A heartfelt “I’m sorry” followed by the actions necessary to resolve a problem can improve a working relationship.)

No, this is the sorry that Bennett calls a crutch, a hedge, a space-filler and a way to downplay female power. She equates it to the similar “I hate to ask.” No, you don’t hate to ask, she argues, you’re just trying to avoid being seen as difficult or demanding.

So why so many sorrys? Well, sociology has a lot to do with it.

Chandler Esslinger, a 21-year-old senior women and gender studies major at Minnesota State University Moorhead, thinks it’s because women are pressured to be peace-keepers and not to come across as too “bossy.”

“Saying the word ‘sorry’ can mitigate that a little bit,” she says. “I do think that that’s unfortunate because a woman shouldn’t have to be concerned about asking for what she wants or speaking her mind, with people, in the back of their minds, thinking she’s pushy or bossy.”

Kandace Creel Falcon, the director of MSUM’s women and gender studies program, says it’s not surprising that women have a tendency to fill their language with unnecessary sorrys, because they’re socialized to be quieter, more unobtrusive and take up less “space” than men.

“If women are too strong, they are equally disliked by their colleagues as they are when they’re not strong enough,” she says.

We can’t win, can we?

In the 60-second Pantene video, women are shown in “redo’s.” Instead of, “Sorry, can I ask a stupid question?” a woman in a meeting confidently interjects, “I have a question …” Another’s “Sorry, do you have a minute?” becomes, “Morning, do you have a minute?” and so on.

Aimee Cohen, a career consultant and author of the new release “Woman UP! Overcome the 7 Deadly Sins That Sabotage Your Success,” writes:

“Women over-apologize as a way to avoid conflict and to foster peace and harmony. We impulsively blurt out ‘I’m sorry’ even when we haven’t done anything wrong. We’re taught to be well-mannered and learn early on that it’s not polite to make others feel uncomfortable or to appear overly aggressive or combative.”

She says it sends the wrong message in the workplace.

“Excessive apologizing is perceived as a sign of weakness, a lack of confidence and competence, and an inability to lead and make difficult decisions.

The tendency for women to over-apologize at work minimizes their expertise and undermines their authority,” she writes.

However, Alison Graham-Bertolini, an assistant professor in North Dakota State University’s English and women and gender studies departments, is troubled by the idea that women are being told to correct the behavior.

Though she understands Cohen’s point and encourages women to work on their confidence in whatever ways work for them, she says the focus on women’s speech patterns perpetuates the idea that they’re somehow at fault for their lack of equality in the workplace and that it’s up to them to fix it.

“The suggestion is that women are responsible for achieving equality by curbing their tendency to apologize, rather than recognizing that such directives are a Band-Aid, not a fix, for social standards that teach only women to be well-mannered and non-combative in the first place (and really, is that such a bad thing?)” she explains.

Esslinger, the MSUM student, also doesn’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing.

“I think women would say, ‘I’m saying sorry to appear more compassionate, or to show that I care or am concerned for the well-being of the other person, or that I’m aware I’m going to interrupt these people,’ ” she says.

Furthermore, Graham-Bertolini worries that the directive to stop over-apologizing gives women “just one more thing to be insecure about as we go about our daily lives.”

She asks, “Do men worry about conduct issues in the workplace? When was the last time a book was published giving men conduct advice? Do we instruct men not to give orders without using the word ‘please’? Do we instruct them to phrase criticisms of their employees as ‘I’ phrases rather than ‘you’ phrases to avoid being perceived as combative?”

Creel Falcon doesn’t necessarily think it’s a problem either, but rather a symptom of the ways in which women are socialized to speak.

Research shows that differences in communication styles exist between genders and that apologies are used and viewed differently by men and women. But it can become a problem, she says, when it’s a barrier for women who want to move up in their career fields.

“I think employers are looking for strong leaders, and if you’re constantly apologizing for things you don’t need to be apologizing for, I think it’s easy to construe that your leadership style is not necessarily as strong as someone else’s who isn’t doing that behavior,” she says.

If it’s something you notice in yourself and want to change, Creel Falcon says you must first become aware of it, then find different ways to say what you want to say. You can be respectful of someone’s time and feelings without it.

“You can interrupt conversation or ask for what you want or need without being confrontational or aggressive but certainly not conciliatory for no reason,” she says.

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