Sorry for saying this … (well, not really)

Here’s a really effective way to diminish your credibility in the workplace and reduce your own confidence:  say “I’m sorry” a lot. 

People – and by “people” I mean “women” – say "sorry" all the time. Most professional women say it far more than they are aware.  It creeps into all kinds of conversations:

“Sorry for interrupting . . .”

“Sorry I didn’t get this to you sooner.”

“I’m sorry you didn't have time to finish this.”

“I’m so sorry that [train delay, argument, spill] happened to you!”

In addition to actually speaking the word “sorry,” it’s possible to communicate “sorry” with many nonverbal behaviors, the embarrassed shoulder shrug (usually accompanied by closed-mouth exaggerated smile) being the most prominent. 

“I’m sorry” can mean lots of things.  It can mean “I did something bad” like cutting you off, cheating on my taxes, or not leaving a final muffin on the communal plate. Mostly sorry-as-apology seems to apply to non-tragic situations where it's not clear that anything has even happened. It has the meaning, “Maybe I should have been more considerate, but I wasn’t, so I want you to know that I’m aware of my shortcomings.” 

“Sorry!” can also mean, “I think you just criticized me, and I feel awkward and embarrassed being criticized, and I'm not sure what to say, but I need to say something, so I'll say I'm sorry.”  Example:  “Joan, there were a few typos on the prospectus.”  “Sorry!”

"I'm sorry that you …" can be an expression of disapproval. "I'm sorry that you didn't have time to review the documents" is an example. Most listeners would find this to be a pretty clear criticism (albeit a passive-aggressive one); yet my impression is that many speakers of such words are quite sure that they mean nothing of the sort. 

“Sorry” can also be fishing for appreciation or expressing a complaint.  “Here's the draft of the offering memorandum; I worked on it until 6 am but then had to go to an 8 am doctor's appointment, sorry I wasn't able to reschedule it.” 

“I’m sorry” has a totally different use, as an expression of sympathy.  It shows that you understand that an unfortunate thing that happened to a fellow human being, whether that’s an annoying conversation or something actually serious, and you want to show your sympathy.  It’s a bridge expression, combining a feeling of “that sucks” with “I am concerned.” The problem is that it is vastly overused, and in my own experience, tends to add a distracting emotional element to things I think are pretty trivial.  If I say, "I got totally wet in the one-block walk from the subway stop to my office" and a colleague responds, "I'm sorry!" I think, "huh?"

Men, by the way, use “sorry” approximately one-zillionth the frequency women do, at least in the professional world.  Barbara Annis, who wrote an interesting book on gender differences in the workforce called Leadership and the Sexes, says that women use “sorry” as a way of bonding and creating harmony.  She says further that women don’t always mean they are actually sorry when they say it – it’s just an accepted nice thing to say.  

One of my professional goals is the empowerment of all women (especially those in the developing world, but that’s another story).  So I will just lay out my opinion:  women, you’ve got to STOP saying “sorry.”  Just get rid of it.  It’s holding you back, especially because most of the time you use it you are probably not even aware of it. For the time-being, our work norms are male-dominated, so if you say "sorry” a lot in professional settings your words are going to make you seem ineffectual, uncertain, and frequently wrong. 

Do a “sorry” audit and figure out how often you are using it, and in what situations.  If what you really mean is, “I apologize for something significant” then it might be okay.  But if it doesn’t rise to that level, don’t say it.  Second, save your “I’m sorry about your _____” expression of sympathy for things that actually matter.  Saying “I’m sorry” when a colleague complains, “the traffic sucked,” doesn’t count.  And if you hear female colleagues, especially younger ones, boarding the sorry express, clue them in. There are better uses for their energy than being sorry.

8 thoughts on “Sorry for saying this … (well, not really)”

  1. Sorry, but this post is so sexist that I’m unsubscribing from your blog. Sorry. It’s women who need to make the change, typical …

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  2. Mm.. Seriously, this is disappointing. As a lawyer in Australia – I think if you’re genuinely sorry (and objectively sorry – rather than low self-esteem / awkwardness-diffusing / submissive-behaviour-playing), you should just SAY IT.
    Nothing worse than lawyer-wankers, and Michael by “lawyer-wankers” I mean more often “male lawyers” who think saying ‘sorry’ in a professional context when it is warranted, is career suicide.
    It’s not. It just makes you a wanker.
    Michael, if you’re going to broach topics that do run the risk of being sexist, you could at least attempt to write it with eloquence or have a more more nuanced and persuasive entry. Otherwise – you just sound awful and sexist. Or do we have to buy your book for the better-expressed version?
    How unfortunate, I decided to google your name after having already ordered The Creative Lawyer from Amazon.com, but this is a shocking prologue to the contents within. Fortunately there is a return policy for those who are extremely ‘sorry’ they considered reading it.
    With love,

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  3. I was just saying this exact thing to a female PhD friend of mine who says “sorry” too much when she TAs her discussion section. In landscape architecture school, I had a 6 foot tall, flame haired, fired up female instructor who one day, when yet another woman was apologizing while presenting her work, said, that’s it, if I hear any of you women apologize once more for your work, I’m going to explode. You don’t hear the men apologizing, do you? She was right and I never forgot it. Thank you, Paula. And thank you, Michael.

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  4. As a young female lawyer, I’m constantly given this “advice.” I use “advice” in scare quotes with good reason. I grew up in a place where people said “sorry” a lot – Canada. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s actually a true one; Canadians do say “sorry” a lot! It’s part of a larger cultural pastiche where empathy isn’t seen as weakness and where, when you don’t measure up to standards (I think typos were used in your example), you own up to it.
    That said, apologizing when totally unnecessary is, well, unnecessary and evidences a lack of confidence.
    The point I’m getting at is that I don’t want to live in the kind of society where I’m told to banish “sorry” from my vocabulary. I want to live in one where selective and appropriate use of “sorry” is acceptable and encouraged.
    The first poster’s comment actually resonated with me; I’m not sure why I should have to give up my use of “sorry” so that I can fit into some blowhard world. I want the blowhards to come over to my side!

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  5. I wish the U.S. were more like Canada. Then we were have a more egalitarian educational system and better access to healthcare, and people overseas would like us more. I would also welcome our adoption of the softer, non-macho elements of Canadian culture.
    I don’t think that limiting the unnecessary and self-defeating uses of “sorry” is the same as not owning up to one’s mistakes. For instance, it would have been nice if BP said “sorry” after nearly destroying the Gulf of Mexico. I think, however, that is worthwhile for one to examine one’s communications to make sure that whatever one is saying is mindful, rather than automatic, or worse, a kind of conditioned response to social sex-role brainwashing.

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