"Sorry Rachel, could I just interrupt briefly?"
"Right, yes, sorry Aaron. Go ahead."
"Sorry, I just thought we were working towards a March completion on this project? Sorry if I've got that wrong."
Sound familiar? Saying "sorry" when we don't really need to can be a difficult habit to break. Perhaps you don't even notice yourself doing it. But over-using the word "sorry" can make your sincere apologies less meaningful and may even lose you your co-workers' respect.
So, why do we do it?
Apologizing is a common trait among "people pleasers" and those of us who avoid confrontation at all costs. We apologize because we assume that we are the one's in the wrong, because we want to diffuse tension, or to fill an awkward silence. Over-apologizing can also reveal a lack of self-worth or self-confidence.
Does Gender Cause "Sorry-itis"?
In many cultures, it is thought that women tend to apologize more often than men. Is this because men have a higher threshold for what they consider offensive behavior? Pantene's recent advertising campaign, "Sorry Not Sorry" suggests so. But a recent Washington Post blog argues that women wrap up their requests and opinions in apologies to avoid being judged too direct. However, research shows that women don't apologize more. Rather, men have a tendency to dominate conversations, especially at work.
In this podcast, Professor Deborah Cameron challenges the idea that we need to be constrained by our gender: "...there is as much difference among men, or among women, as there is between the two." She also reminds us that saying sorry isn't always an act of submission, but rather a sign of consideration or compassion for another person. So, an apology might be something we could all use positively sometimes.
A Sign of Weakness?
John Wayne famously said, "never apologize... it’s a sign of weakness." And constantly apologizing can undermine your arguments and ideas, but there will undoubtedly be occasions when an apology is necessary. The trick is to recognize when you really do need to be sorry for your actions, and when you don't. So, how do we turn mindless apologies into mindful ones?
Listen to Yourself
The first stage to overcoming excessive apologizing is to recognize that you have a problem.
Listen out, and keep a record of the number of times that you apologize in a day. You may be surprised! Enlist the help of your colleagues or friends to (gently) point out your apologies. You may not notice yourself doing it, but others certainly will.
Change Your Assumptions
The next step is to change your mindset.
Unlike John Wayne, many of us assume that we are at fault without even thinking about it.
"Sorry" features heavily in my own everyday language. I even find myself saying it when I hold the door open for someone. Not because I am sorry that the other person has to cross a threshold, but because it has become a bad habit.
So, when you do start recording your apologies, be sure to also note whether they were really needed. Chances are that the unnecessary apologies will significantly outweigh the fair ones.
Think Before You Speak
Now that you’ve identified the problem, you can start to take active steps towards fixing it.
The solution is really quite simple: think before you speak. Before you apologize for helping yourself to the last of the coffee, or for disagreeing with one of your colleagues, ask yourself, "what am I sorry for?" The brief moment it takes you to consider your choice of words could dramatically alter your peers' perception of you.
So, instead of saying sorry, simply explain yourself. Set out your case confidently and professionally.
But, be careful not to over-compensate. You don't want to become that person that never says sorry. If this happens, you risk coming across as rude or aggressive instead of assertive.
Lend a Helping Hand
Once you've become the boss of your own apologies, why not help your fellow team members to do the same?
You might have a co-worker who struggles to get his or her voice heard, or who is sabotaging his hard work by constantly apologizing. If this is the case, remind him that he doesn't need to apologize for what he believes is right. Help him to become more mindful of his apologies, and be an advocate for his good ideas. You'll boost his confidence and help him to reach his full potential.
Having the humility and compassion to apologize is an invaluable trait. But, saying sorry too much can have a significant impact on how you value yourself and the work you do. By reserving your apologies only for when they are really justified, you'll likely be more assertive and feel confident in your ability.
You never know, cutting down on saying sorry could help you to speak up more in meetings, or to ask for that promotion you've had your eye on. So, the next time you go to say the S-word, stop yourself and ask, "am I really sorry?"
Do you find yourself saying "sorry" all of the time? Or, do you never say it? What tips do you have for people who over-apologize? Share your thoughts and tips in the Comments section below...