Stop apologizing when you’ve done nothing wrong

Photo: Getty Images/Photo Alto/Eric Audras

The break room in my office features a galley-style kitchen—long and narrow with four different microwaves at one end, two on a shelf above the counter and two below it. The cramped arrangement is awkward enough during the lunchtime rush hour—there’s almost no space to maneuver without bumping into somebody—but the awkwardness is only heightened by my female colleagues. Oh, and me.

As we move through this space, trying not to step on anybody or block someone reaching to get their meal, there’s an almost unrelenting chorus of “sorries.” At first, I didn’t notice it. But a few weeks ago, my friend/editor (freditor? Hi, Abbey!) [Editor’s note: Hi, Beth Anne!] asked if I’d be interested in writing a piece about women and our complicated relationship with the word “sorry.” Now, it’s all I can hear. Those apologies are as much a part of the lunchtime experience as our soups, Lean Cuisines, and yes, leftover fish (a choice that might actually warrant a legitimate apology, although that’s a discussion for another day).

These lunch-hour “sorries” are what Alexandra Johnston, executive coach and professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, refers to as “ritual apologies.” “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ can be the first part of an expected two-part ritual, one that women expect other women to implicitly understand and complete with a return apology or refusal to assign blame,” Johnston explains. She provides the following example:

Woman to female colleague: “I’m sorry I didn’t get that spreadsheet back to you first thing Monday morning like I promised.”

Female colleague: “No, it’s okay. I’m sorry I sent the data so late Friday evening. You didn’t have enough time.”

When you’re both wrong, no one gets mad and no one gets in trouble. (At least, that’s what so many of us think.)

As the above examples make clear, for many of us, sorry is rarely about actual contrition—it’s a crutch that we use to express all kinds of things that we feel we can’t just come out and say, lest we seem aggressive, or thoughtless, or like we aren’t team players. But when we aren’t saying what we actually mean, it can be all too easy for our message to get lost in translation. Especially when we’re communicating with a group that has, since birth, been socialized to believe they don’t have to apologize for anything (even when they probably should).

Sorry is rarely about actual contrition—it’s a crutch that we use to express all kinds of things that we feel we can’t just come out and say, lest we seem aggressive, or thoughtless, or like we aren’t team players.

“Men often understand ‘I’m sorry’ as a face-value ‘apology’ and [way to take] blame,” Johnston says. “They view it as putting themselves down, not as smoothing over a social interaction. So men may, unconsciously or consciously, think that [when a woman apologizes], she’s putting herself down in the hierarchy—and they may view her accordingly.” (Johnston is quick to note that this doesn’t apply to all men, and adds that one’s cultural upbringing also has a lot to do with how and when they apologize: “I’ve seen ‘sorry’ wreak havoc in corporate mergers between Midwestern-based and East Coast-based corporations,” she says.)

Marcia Reynolds, a communications expert and author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations Into Breakthroughs, agrees that indirect “sorries” tend to cause more problems than they prevent. The word sorry, Reynolds says, “creates a perception of low self-esteem and status. If you say ‘sorry’ to me frequently, then it sets up the dynamic that I am more important than you, which often doesn’t feel good for either of us.”

As someone for whom “sorry” has become a sort of rhetorical security blanket, I could use a few more tools to help me communicate more clearly. So, I somewhat selfishly decided to ask Johnston and Reynolds for alternatives to the ways I (and, I suspect, many of you) deploy the s-word.

This isn’t intended to be yet another article policing women’s speech, but rather, a practical guide to navigating the obstacle course that is communicating while female. “You don’t want to feel like you’re changing yourself or you’re losing who you are to adapt to a norm that can be very different from yours,” Johnston says. “But at the same time, it’s really empowering to build an awareness of how you communicate…It’s the difference in styles that can cause issues, and the awareness of those differences can be one more tool in your kit to help your success.”

If you aren’t quite sure where to begin, here’s what she and Reynolds suggested to help me and my fellow apology addicts get to the heart of what it is we’re really trying to say.

Photo: Getty Images/Caiaimage/John Wildgoose

Instead of apologizing when somebody bumps into you (or otherwise invades your space):

“I’m a small woman who gets bumped into frequently, especially at airports,” says Reynolds. “My response is, ‘I bet you didn’t see me standing here. Now you do.’ They need to know I’m present. Most of the time, the other person apologizes for being unaware.”

This approach works for people who encroach on your time, too (e.g., the office hoverer). “If someone comes to your office or cubicle and are talking and taking up your time, don’t say, ‘I’m sorry, I really need to work,’” Johnston advises. “Just state the real issue: ‘I need to focus on what I’m working on now. Can I help you with something immediate? If not, let’s make an appointment for when we both have time.’”

Instead of saying, “Sorry, but why didn’t you do X?” when someone hasn’t held up their end of a bargain:

Your roommate leaves dishes in the sink (again), or your report at work misses another deadline. If you plan to confront them, don’t soften your request with an apology, which may cause them to take you less seriously. “Instead, restate the agreed-on expectation and ask the person when they will do what they promised to do,” Reynolds suggests. “If this is a first-time conversation, you might ask, ‘What got in the way? What support do you need to move forward?’ Be very clear on the impact of the delay.” This kind of honesty is especially important at the office, Johnston says: “Don’t apologize for doing your job.” (This goes for email, too!)

Instead of saying “sorry” to prompt somebody else’s apology:

You might think you’re being super-clear when you break out a passive aggressive “sorry” after a disagreement—after all, you obviously didn’t do anything wrong. But if you’re hoping to have a real, productive conversation with the person you just butted heads with, your sorry could be interpreted as an admission of misconduct and you’ll probably leave the discussion feeling dissatisfied. “People who don’t recognize this indirect meaning won’t get it,” Johnston says. “Instead, state the issue directly in terms of how the person’s behavior affected you. ‘When you do X, this causes Y for me and that means Z.’” You can’t control what the other person does with that information, but at least you’ll feel like you’ve been heard.

Instead of inserting yourself into a discussion with, “Sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt…”

When you’re trying to share an idea or weigh in on someone else’s—especially in a professional setting—it can be hard for people to hear you over your apology. “If you need to lead in with something in order to smoothly take the floor during a discussion, try, ‘I can understand what you’re saying. From my perspective we should do X, and I say this because of Y evidence,’” Johnston says. “Without saying ‘but,’ which can discount everything you just said about understanding the other person and sets up a ‘disagreement.’”

Not that there’s anything wrong with some conflict every now and again. Nor—and I can’t emphasize this enough—is there anything actually wrong with the word “sorry.” The key is knowing when and with whom we can use it and still be understood. So while I’m currently making a concerted effort to strip “sorry” from my email and meeting vocabulary, I have zero plans to stop saying it around my friends—or throwing it out to the microwave crew. And you know what? I’m not sorry.

As long as we’re nixing unnecessary apologies from our emails, might as well reexamine the all-important sign-off. And here’s a productivity expert’s advice for breaking a bad habit (just like—you guessed it—saying “I’m sorry” when you don’t need to).