- WASHINGTON POST
Can You Apologize too much? Sorry, But Read This to Find Out.
14:48 JST, April 8, 2023
Some people use the phrase “I’m sorry” several times a day. They apologize for the weather, for your sick cat and for other small challenges beyond anybody’s control.
These chronic apologizers are often told to break the “I’m sorry” habit. But should they? Can someone really apologize too much?
Scientific evidence suggests that you should never have to say you’re sorry, for saying sorry.
In one unusual study, researchers tested the effect of the unnecessary apology. A man approached dozens of strangers waiting at a train station on a rainy day and asked to borrow their cellphones.
Most people – 91 percent – turned him down. But when he tried a different tactic, first apologizing for the rainy weather, he had more success.
“I’m sorry about the rain!” he told them. “Can I borrow your cellphone?”
Almost half of the strangers the man apologized to handed over their phone. The findings, from researchers at Harvard Business School and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, may surprise those who find chronic apologizers annoying and their mea culpas unnecessary.
The train station study, along with other research in human behavior and psychology, suggests the act of saying “I’m sorry,” in a variety of circumstances, is an effective way to show empathy toward others.
“There’s really no apology researcher who will ever tell you that apologizing is bad,” said Alison Wood Brooks, an associate professor at Harvard Business School and the lead author of the study. “There’s just no evidence that zero apology is ever better than at least one.”
Apologizing to express regret for foul weather, frustrating traffic or to say “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well” can be handy devices in conversations. Experts say people appreciate when someone recognizes their troubles.
As a doctoral student in 2013, Brooks was the lead researcher on four studies on superfluous apologies, including the train study, and found that this type of apology can build a sense of trust.
“A superfluous apology isn’t about blame,” Brooks said. “It’s an acknowledgment of someone else’s suffering, essentially, even if it’s incredibly minor.”
These superfluous apologies can feel like an “anxious tick” – such as, starting a conversation with “oh, sorry to bother” – but this small attempt to recognize someone else’s situation has its benefits, researchers say.
“The much, much, much more common error is not apologizing enough than over apologizing,” Brooks said.
Karina Schumann, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, said that in her research, women do apologize slightly more than men on average.
But that’s probably because women are more likely to notice that a given behavior may be offensive and, therefore, more deserving of an apology. The perceived gender gap is “not nearly as large of a gap as people think it is,” Schumann said. And it isn’t clear women suffer any consequences for saying sorry regularly.
“Men apologize just as frequently as women do when they perceive that they’ve done something wrong,” Schumann said. “Once it’s triggered as an offense in their mind, they’re just as willing to apologize.”
People have different understandings – or “baselines” – of when it’s appropriate to apologize to someone else, Schumann said.
In one study, Schumann and others wrote that people who are less narcissistic and who have more empathy are more likely to apologize. Those who apologize more often are seen by others as friendly and moral, as compared with those who don’t.
“Apologies are incredibly effective most of the time,” Schumann said. “They’re really needed in most of our relationships to smooth over everyday offenses and then to help repair major offenses.”
Still, not every “I’m sorry” is an apology, said Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. A person might say “I’m sorry” but not as an admission of guilt. They’re just saying “I’m sorry that happened,” said Tannen, who wrote a book about the disconnect in conversational styles between men and women at work.
“It’s often just a ritual, automatic,” Tannen said. “You might call it a social lubricant. And language is full of that.”
Can someone apologize too much?
Some people believe there are drawbacks to apologizing. Years ago, Pantene, the American hair products brand, released a marketing campaign titled “Sorry, Not Sorry” to call for women to apologize less at work or at home.
Schumann said a person who apologizes often can be seen as less assertive or less powerful. But it may be because some people are bad at apologizing effectively. “Flippantly throwing around apologies,” without really meaning them might lead people to start tuning out your “sorrys,” Schumann said.
Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at Wharton School, said there’s not enough research to determine whether someone can apologize too often, but he believes over-apologizing can signal that someone lacks confidence because you’re inviting more feedback.
“I think an apology is the kind of tool that demonstrates concern for other people,” he said. “It demonstrates perspective-taking. When we’re trying to build a relationship or we’re trying to repair a relationship, an apology can be very effective.”
So, when should someone say “I’m sorry”?
Tannen calls the apology “one of the most powerful weapons” to use in an argument and move past conflict.
When done right, an effective apology can mend broken relationships. People who apologize more often, and effectively, are seen as warm and moral by their romantic partners.
An apology should include a “promise to change and penance” to repair the damage, Schweitzer said. When hospital systems change policies to allow physicians to apologize to patients or their families for a medical error, the number of lawsuits against that hospital falls, Schweitzer said.
“The apology, if it’s done right, creates a separation between the person of the past and the person of today,” Schweitzer said. “That promise to change turns out to be a really important component of an effective apology.”
And when you apologize, accept responsibility for what went wrong and don’t make excuses.
“Apologies are seen as really humiliating and effortful and difficult expressions to offer,” Schumann said. “But then once we’ve offered them, we feel great.”
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