“I’m sorry” is the ultimate peacemaker. When something warrants an apology, it’s surprising the difference a single phrase can make.
But it can also be the smooth transition when feeling awkward stating a fact, the fallback qualifier when trying not to come across as too aggressive, or even an over-compensation for a generally uncomfortable situation.
There’s been a lot of talk lately around how much people, particularly women, apologize at work. A recent article in the New York Times talks about why women apologize and why they should stop. Another post by women’s career advice platform, Levo League, talks about how apologizing too much lessens co-workers’ respect for the apologizer.
A lot of the arguments for women trimming our vocabularies of words such as “sorry”, “just”, and “like” make sense. If we tend to over-use these comfort phrases, it becomes difficult for others to grasp what we’re trying to say and believe that we mean it.
If there’s too much flirting around a statement, people start to wonder if we know what we’re talking about.
It’s also a matter of developing the skill of self-editing. Both in the written and spoken word, it’s important to say what you mean without muddying the message with unnecessary and distracting words. It makes the concept heavy, harder to grasp and can come across as just plain sloppy.
Some people are offended by the assertion that women need to monitor their speech patterns, even seeing it as sexist in that women have to adjust their natural instinctive way of speaking to conform to what a male-driven society has laid out as acceptable.
While there may be some validity to this, from a psychological standpoint apologizing too much can make you come across as weak or insecure. Taking it even further, some researchers say over apologizing can come across as subtly insubordinate or even passive aggressive.
At the very least it can dilute the phrase to a point where it becomes disingenuous. When an occurrence actually calls for a apology, say forgetting to send an important document that stalls a big project versus explaining how a program works to a new hire, the phrase will be so worn out and standard in your vocabulary, that it will be hard to take seriously. Crying wolf syndrome in the professional realm.
Women do tend to over-apologize more than men due to their natural tendency to seek harmony and having a lower threshold for offensive behavior. Women also may be more socially attuned than men, to a point where they scrutinize their own innocuous actions into hurtful ones.
Statistics aside, over-apologizing at work can breach the gender gap, as psychotherapist Beverly Engel notes, “Children of parents who teach them to take responsibility for any problems or issues that come up often become over-apologizers, as do children whose parents teach them that apologizing is a form of politeness.”
If you’re worried that not saying sorry will make you come across as mean, consider that some people will actually take incessant apologizing as a social cue of someone trying to elicit an apology from them. This can make them feel you’re trying to manipulate them. Or at the least it can make many situations more confusing and awkward than they needed to be.
Whatever the ingrained reasons for apologizing too much, it’s a habit worth breaking in the workplace for both men and women. It fundamentally puts the speaker at a disadvantage in a conversation. Especially when an apology isn’t necessary, it can make you come across as a people-pleaser to a fault and a easy mark for someone to take advantage of.
As over-apologizers tend to be over-analyzers in general, it’s important that you don’t stress yourself over this! Saying you’re sorry too much is often just a confidence issue, and confidence can be built up a little at a time.
Try just standing up a little straighter, looking people in the eye when you speak, shaking hands with certainty, and, as the old adage goes, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” And try not to tag it with an apprehensive, “Sorry.”