- remove_red_eye541 views
- comment1 comment
I often catch myself saying, “I’m sorry.” The apology is more often a reflex or used to empathize with someone — not take responsibility for something — and therein lies the problem. As a habitual apologist, I can’t assume the person on the receiving end understands I’m just being polite or providing support as a colleague versus admitting guilt or failure. In higher-level interactions with managers and executives, apologists can appear less confident in themselves and their skills, impacting performance reviews, promotions and compensation. Constantly apologizing as an expression of empathetic awareness or lack of self-confidence undermines interactions and turns imposter syndrome into an insidious feedback loop.
As we return to the new normal of workplace life in 2021, now is a great time to stop saying “sorry” and recognize we don’t need to apologize for just doing our jobs. But unlearning this takes practice and time. To change, apologists must make conscious choices in their words and how they present themselves and their expertise.
Why We Do It: Empathy and Social Conditioning
Over-apologizing can be a struggle for anyone. While being an apologist is not exclusive to women, there can be more tangible negative impacts of over-apologetic social conditioning among this group. From childhood, women tend to be more socially conditioned to be more empathetic (the caretaker role) and more apologetic (the peacekeeper role). For example, a 2010 Psychological Science study showed that women self-reported apologizing more because they felt they committed more offenses compared to the men who self-reported. The study concludes, “men apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior.”
When exploring questions like why we may be compelled to over-apologize in the face of insecurity or why we take responsibility for things outside our control, it is helpful to step back and evaluate our core value system, both personally and professionally. Our past workplace experiences, past relationships, cultural background, childhood and even popular culture are internalized barometers guiding our behavior. If we are conscious of the core values we bring to our interactions, we can begin reshaping those that no longer serve us.
How We Do It: Hedging Our Bets
Leaning on an apologetic tone for communication in social situations is deployed for various reasons. Pick a day and track how often you use some form of apology, written or spoken. Did you apologize for something you weren’t responsible for or have no reason to be sorry for? In studying my own behavior, I realize apologies are like a reflex. Saying “sorry” instead of “excuse me” when narrowly crossing paths with someone in the hall. (We both have a right to be there — what am I sorry about? Answer: Nothing.)
Intentionally using an apologetic tone is also a communication strategy to empathize, seem friendlier or diffuse a tense situation. How often have you seen or written an email like this: “Hey, Co-worker, I realize you’re swamped, but if it’s not too much trouble, would you mind…”? Perhaps you are just as busy, and this is the fifth time you’ve reminded them about their task. We should save apologies for moments when we actually need to take accountability.
The “I’m sorry” narrative can be sneaky, embedded in little lead-ins and phrases we all use conversationally, perhaps signaling self-doubt or hedging our bets that we’re not the most competent person in the room:
- “If that makes sense?”
- “I’m not well versed enough in X, but…”
- “Maybe I’m misinterpreting this…” (which is usually followed by a statement that shows you clearly understand)
- “Am I missing some information?”
- “I think…”
- “I should probably know that, but I don’t off-hand.”
A recent Medium article includes a list I’ve expanded on here, based on actual phrases I’ve caught myself using. The article focuses on the effects of using an overly apologetic tone (it makes you sound weak), yet I advocate for changing by getting to the core of what influences our behavior using self-reflection. This insight allows us to modify our behavior with greater success. The outcome lies with us, rather than relying on someone else to provide subjective behavioral feedback (i.e., “I’m proud of myself for speaking up during meetings” versus awaiting a manager’s feedback: “You are a strong communicator during meetings.”)
How to Fix It: Build Confident Communication
Use the power of communication to build confidence and relay that to others. I’m learning to make myself think about the weight of my words, and use deliberate language so I can stop apologizing for doing my job. I pause when I feel the word “sorry” niggling at my lips in a Zoom call because I’m nervous. I get creative with words when I’ve defaulted to typing “sorry” in Slack for fear I’m nagging someone. And I’ve stopped apologizing for being the subject-matter expert when someone else is not. As a technical writer, I don’t need to justify my editorial changes every time I swap a comma for a semi-colon or correct passive voice. That’s what I was hired to do! I just need to unapologetically edit as a subject-matter expert, regardless of who wrote the piece or how they may react. In other words, apologists should start confidently taking up space in the room as an authority on their contributions.
Just as our behavior can be influenced by our relational history (upbringing) and cultural background (society), our workplace culture also impacts how we engage at work. For instance, my current company stresses that we “ask questions like a 5-year-old.” The effects of this organizational culture value are two-fold:
- It encourages interrogatory communication exchanges both laterally and vertically (up or down) within the organization.
- With so many questions asked company-wide, everyone gains experience expressing their subject-matter knowledge to a diverse audience.
The lesson here is that asking questions is vital to growing as a professional. The trap apologists need to avoid is using questions or apologetic phrasing that expresses a lack of self-confidence (real or false) when it is our job to share expertise or assign tasks.
The quickest way to start weeding out over-apologetic communication is to stop using questions to make declarative statements. Replace apologetically toned phrases with statements such as:
- “Please let me know if I can clarify for you.”
- “Based on my experience with X…”
- “This can be interpreted as…”
- “With the information on-hand…”
- “I think…” (Skip the qualifier — just say what you think.)
- “Let me circle back with that information.”
Bottom line: Don’t apologize unless you’re actually sorry. Be confident in who you are and the talent you bring to your workplace. And remember, you may very well be the subject-matter expert in the room. Don’t assume you’re not.
Cathy Jo Beecher works as a technical writer for ID.me and is an APMP member. She holds a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Montana and is a Registered Professional Archaeologist as well as a certified sommelier. She can be reached on LinkedIn.