An Apology for Saying ‘Sorry’

I have a fraught relationship with the words “I’m sorry.” I say it constantly, habitually, even when I don’t mean to. I was raised in the South, where women are often conditioned to apologize compulsively. I have apologized to coffee tables I’ve bumped into, then laughed when I realized it. When I show up late or worry over something thoughtless I said to a friend, I say “sorry” by instinct. Some friends tell me to stop apologizing so much. Inevitably I reply, “I know. I’m sorry.”

On any given day, I open Instagram and see memes encouraging people — especially women, who tend to apologize more often than men — to knock off the apologies and offering what to say instead. There are perennial articles about how to quit an “I’m sorry” habit.

Saying “I’m sorry” is not always a heartfelt, sincere note of contrition, of course. It can become little more than a verbal tic. Yet the “I’m sorry” debate also points to something deeper. We are told that apologizing too much shows a lack of confidence and authority and can make us seem weak. In our cultural context, the debate about how much to say “I’m sorry” becomes part of a broader societal script about self-confidence, power and gender. It raises questions about what proper self-regard and healthy, humble diffidence look like. And here is where this debate becomes trickier and more perplexing to me.

Concern and lack of concern for the experience of others are dispositions that are learned, in part, through habit. In a 2019 essay for The Times, Kristin Wong cited a study that found that women apologize more than men because they report committing more offenses than men, which may indicate a higher level of sensitivity to other people’s needs and feelings. She wrote, “Women — and surely frequent apologizers in general — seem to be more empathic.”

I wonder which comes first: the empathy or the habit of apology? My husband and I have taught our children — two daughters and one son — to say “I’m sorry” frequently. “Sorry” was among my son’s first words. Of course, I don’t want to instill a lack of confidence in my children. I want them to be secure and know they have much to offer the world. Yet I also want them to know that their words and actions affect others.

So even little things — bumping into people accidentally, spilling something on a sibling’s shirt, hurting someone’s feelings just a bit with a joke, being late and making others wait — is worth an “I’m sorry.” (We also teach our kids to say “I forgive you” just as frequently.) We apologize to them often as well. I know that when they say “I’m sorry,” they don’t always feel profoundly repentant or contrite, and that’s fine with me, because this habit of taking account of the experience of others is built by practice, even by the sheer use of words, not only by emotions. If we don’t practice regarding others in small, daily ways, we will be less likely to do so in larger, more significant ways as well.

Yet looking back, I see that there have been times I apologized too much too quickly and regretted it later. I didn’t want to be defensive, so I caved to workplace bullies, abrasive people or simply those with whom I had an honest disagreement.

All the cultural chatter about apologizing can be particularly bewildering for people of faith — especially the women among us. After all, in Christianity, humility is prized as a virtue. In Scripture, it is the meek who “shall inherit the earth,” not the brash, the bold or those who always think they are right.

An essential belief I hold as a Christian is that I am a sinner in need of repentance. Each Sunday, I kneel with my church community in corporate confession and say aloud that I am “truly sorry” and that I “humbly repent.” We all say this together — men and women alike, the brazen and the modest, the overapologizers and underapologizers. It is worth noting that of all the things we could do week in and week out in our worship gatherings, we collectively practice saying the words “I’m sorry.” Yet everyone who says these words of confession and repentance in my church is also shaped by society. This affects how we come to the practice of confession and repentance in the first place. This affects our sense of self, of confidence or humility.

In my work as a pastor, I’ve noticed times when the cultural expectations of women to remain pleasant, smiling and accommodating mix with religious beliefs to create a needless sense of guilt for feeling justly disappointed, sad or angry. In other words, for having normal human emotions. But the pendulum can swing too far the other way as well, and frequent apologizers — perhaps especially women — can feel pressure to mimic the overconfidence of others. At a conference for people in ministry I attended several years ago, one speaker gave an address at a women’s breakfast calling us to never doubt ourselves and be more self-assured. A woman I know who is wise and strong raised her hand and responded, “But I don’t want to have to be like most men in this way.” She said that she found men conditioned to be more arrogant and, as a person of faith, thought that was wrong.

Saying “I’m sorry” requires vulnerability, a quality that women are often encouraged to embrace. This can be — and has been — exploited in innumerable ways, yet there is something good and beautiful in it. Humans, each and every one of us, are inherently vulnerable. We are inherently prone to both give and receive wounds. I don’t want to lose this sense of vulnerability or have to trade it for a false invulnerability to keep up.

Obviously, if there is a solution to this tension between overapologizing and overconfidence, it is to have precisely appropriate levels of confidence and humility. But day in and day out, this is hard to do and is made more difficult by the societal debate around whether and how often to say “sorry.” Having keen self-knowledge, humility and awareness of both one’s gifts and one’s faults is hard enough without having to negotiate generations of stereotypes, cultural conditioning and gender expectations on top of it.

In the end, I look to the mercy of God not only for forgiveness of fault but also for help navigating the complex historical and political meaning of what it is to be both a woman called to act confidently, joyfully and with authority in the world and a sinner in need of humility and repentance. I’m still not quite willing to let go of “I’m sorry.” I know I apologize too much. And at the end of the day, I think I’d rather err that way than not say “sorry” enough. And if that is wrong, which it may be, I’m very sorry.

Tish Harrison Warren (@Tish_H_Warren) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of “Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep.”

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