Over-apologize and You’ll Be Sorry

March 2015

iStock

Last year a hair care company came out with a short video to highlight one of women’s biggest shortcomings: over-apologizing. The Pantene video was, in my opinion, totally on point.

While we all certainly know people who don’t say “I’m sorry” (and mean it) enough, we also know people who say it all too frequently.

We are used to showing empathy for another by saying, “I’m sorry” and softening the blows of a breakup or minor transgression with some similar sentiment. We do it before making a request, acknowledging an intrusion or negotiating an argument. We instinctively say it because we’re nurturers and because we may have low self-esteem. And we sometimes just want to sound polite.

Yes, there are times to say “I’m sorry,” like when you are wrong or when you have hurt. But the phrase shouldn’t be as common for women in business as it is. (Academic research suggests men also over-apologize, just less frequently at work.)

“Apologizing unnecessarily puts women in a subservient position and makes people lose respect for them,” executive coach Bonnie Marcus told a reporter at Fast Company.

I’ve culled advice from some business and communications experts to help those of us prone to this and other habitual or low-confidence-level verbal tics.

Keep a log for a week. I did this and was shocked at how many times I apologized, especially in emails and text messages, when I disagreed with someone or couldn’t comply with a request. Awareness is always the first step to changing a habit.

Choose your words more carefully. One reason we instinctively apologize is because it just blurts out. Emotionally intelligent people train themselves to carefully consider what they are going to say before they say it. It may not eliminate overuse of the phrase, but it will certainly cut down on instances.

Start with written communications. It may be easier to catch yourself over-apologizing in emails or online comments. We tend to be more thoughtful at the keyboard. By better filtering our words in print, we can more easily transition to sounding unnecessarily apologetic in person.

Substitute a word, or say nothing. For some, swapping “I’m sorry” with something less loaded, like “If you don’t mind,” may be the best transition. Or, if the situation warrants, say nothing at all and move on to the meat of the discussion. It takes practice, and the patience of others.

Stop doubting yourself. When you pepper a presentation or repeatedly respond to others with “Sorry,” you are showing your lack of confidence. Have more faith in yourself and others will too.

Stop owning someone else’s bad behavior. When you apologize on behalf of another—a co-worker who blows a big deadline, a husband who is rude to the restaurant server—you are also assuming responsibility for that behavior. Otherwise why would you be apologizing? Take a deep breath. Decide if you are indeed partially at fault. If you are, then by all means acknowledge the issue and, more importantly, let people know what steps you’ll take to correct it. But don’t enable others by absorbing disappointment and anger that should be directed at them.

—Anne