March 16, 2015 — I recently came across a Pantene ad that went viral in June. Besides highlighting the flawless and beautiful hair of the actresses, it features multiple situations where women unnecessarily say “sorry”—a verbal tic that, for many women, has become entrenched in everyday conversation. In scene after scene of the ad, women are shown apologizing for a series of silly reasons. It becomes clear the women should not be remorseful. Yet as I was watching, I had this horrifying epiphany—I do this. I do this all the time. I did this today.
So here’s a quick list of some common reasons women are quick to say “sorry”—and five things we could be saying instead!
1) To demonstrate compassion and empathy. Many people, not just women, use “sorry” as shorthand for sympathy. While it’s both virtuous and smart to express compassion for your coworkers, apologizing for the random happenings of the universe is unnecessary and avoidable. There are other ways to demonstrate understanding and to establish trusting relationships with colleagues. Arguably, this is one of the easiest ways to remove “sorry” from our vocabulary, because there are so many great alternatives!
Instead of: “I’m sorry you were late because of terrible New York City traffic.”
Try: “How frustrating that you were late because of that awful traffic.”
2) To fill air. Just like words such as “um,” “uh,” and “like,” “sorry” can fill empty conversational space. It might be because we are nervous or just babbling while our mouths catch up with our brains. Either way, in these cases, “sorry” loses its meaning entirely.
Instead of: “We need to … sorry ... first, get the correct data from Finance.”
Try: “We need to < Pause | Silence >, first, get the correct data from Finance.”
3) To interrupt. Most girls are raised to be unfailingly polite at all times, especially at work. For this substitute to work, it is crucial to know your environment. Depending on the organizational culture, the type of meeting you’re in, and the other individuals present, interrupting with an apology can lower your status, especially when others aren’t doing the same. Listen to how your coworkers preface their contributions in meetings—and avoid saying “sorry” unless they do.
Instead of: “I’m sorry to interrupt …”
Try: “Let me say/ask this...” OR “Great points, I would like to add…”
Instead of: “Sorry, do you have a minute?
Try: “Excuse/Pardon me…”
4) To keep the peace. Most women are also taught from an early age to be warm, nurturing, and agreeable, and we sometimes use “sorry” simply to maintain social harmony. Apologies are sometimes employed to help “reset the conversation” after a confrontational, argumentative, or uncomfortable moment. However, “sorry” also represents shame and regret and can make you look weak.
Instead of: “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand this strategy switch.”
Try: “I appreciate your work on this, but I don’t understand the reasoning behind this strategy switch.”
Instead of: “I’m sorry if this is offensive…”
Try: “What I am about to say might be controversial…”
5) To say, and actually mean, sorry. There are plenty of times when it’s appropriate to apologize at work. The key is not only to say “sorry,” but also to express why you are sorry. If you are a chronic over-apologizer, I guarantee that training yourself to include a reason will cut down on the number of times you apologize unnecessarily. A sincere apology is more effective coupled with the reason behind it.
Consider the Pantene video. The man in the video shows up late and the two women scoot over to make room, apologizing repeatedly in the process. If they explained WHY they were sorry, it would go something like this: “I’m sorry that you were late to this meeting and I now need to move over, so you can squeeze into the space I was previously occupying.” (See? Totally unnecessary!)
Especially at work, it’s smart to figure out when it’s appropriate to say “I’m sorry”—and when you should say something else instead.