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Saying “I’m sorry” is so ubiquitous in our day-to-day vocabulary that it has almost become an unconscious filler phrase or standard sentence starter. Does your outgoing phone message start with, “I’m sorry I missed your call?” How many times have you apologized for ‘bothering’ a co-worker or client when you have a question? Do you say you are sorry if you have to turn down an invitation to a work-related event?
Certainly, apologizing is sometimes necessary, but experts advise people to pay attention to what they are apologizing for, especially at work. And especially women, who tend to offer up more apologies than their male counterparts. Interestingly, when scientists studied why women say sorry more than men, they found it is because women and men have different perspectives on what type of behavior warrants an apology, with women finding themselves guilty of more offenses and viewing those offenses as more severe than men typically do.
For many of us, apologizing often just feels like the polite thing to do when things don’t go exactly to plan, and it can become a handy catchphrase to diffuse a potentially uncomfortable situation and keep the peace. However experts suggest saying sorry can have unintended consequences, such as making the apologizer appear weak or blameworthy, and it can devalue their contributions.
Career coach Elana Konstant blogged about what she called her ‘apology addiction,’ an affliction she didn’t fully realize she had until she started her own business and found herself apologizing for charging for her services. She said people she counsels on career transitions often apologize when negotiating employment offers or requesting a promotion or raise, a habit she interprets as an attempt to appear less aggressive and engender approval. Konstant suggests counting how many times you apologize on a given day, especially at work, to see if you might be an apology addict as well.
If you discover you are an over-apologizer, there are a few things you can do, experts say. First, only apologize for things you are truly sorry and regretful about. Put an end to apologizing for things that are out of your control. Don’t apologize for doing your job or taking time off for personal reasons. When you are tempted to apologize, try tweaking it into a ‘thank you’ instead. For instance, rather than saying “I’m sorry I’m a few minutes late,” try “Thank you for your patience while I finished up on a call.”
Orlagh Claire, a blog for young professionals, outlines other seemingly innocuous phrases that inadvertently minimize your authority and presence in the business world. For instance: “Just.” Just following up, just reaching out, just checking in. Just diminishes your question or comment so just stop saying just.
The blog also challenges professionals to think twice about the word ‘Yes.’ As women, it can be easy to fall into the trap of saying yes to every ask or task that comes our way in an attempt to demonstrate our value on the job. Being honest about your workload and limits will actually set you up for success more effectively than taking on too much and not being able to give a project the attention it deserves. And when you politely decline, don’t say you’re sorry.