Advice + Work Wednesdays

10 Things You Should Stop Apologizing for at Work

Apologizing and over-apologizing is a mostly female pursuit.  We apologize to avoid conflict.  We apologize to show deference to others.  We apologize to appear selfless.  We even apologize to inanimate objects when we bump into them.  But our penchant for apologizing can hold us back at work.

Constantly saying ‘sorry’ for minor transgressions gives the appearance of weakness and insecurity.  And when you make a lot of unnecessary apologies, it makes the larger, necessary ones seem insincere.  Over time, your many apologies stack up and give the appearance of incompetence.

Beyond outward appearances, frequent apologies can also undermine our self-confidence.  Apologizing puts you in the subordinate position, and constantly being on your back foot isn’t good for your self-worth.

It’s important to make meaningful apologies when actual wrong has been done.  But too often, women are apologizing reflexively for small errors, both real and perceived.  And those are the apologies that we need to stop making.

Retraining ourselves to stop the chorus of apologies starts with controlling our habitual responses and re-molding our speech.  Here are a few strategies you can employ to cut back on the impulsive apologies.

  • Instead of saying, “I’m sorry,” when you bump into someone, say, “pardon me.”  You can also rely on “pardon me” when interrupting.
  • Never start a question with an apology, the common “I’m sorry, but….”   Instead, if you feel the need to preface your query, say something like “quick question” or “building on that point.”
  • Don’t apologize when someone alerts you to a small mistake in your work.  Express gratitude for the other person by saying something like “good catch,” “thanks for spotting that,” or “I appreciate you bringing that to my attention.”
  • Learn to decline a request without saying you’re sorry.  “No” is a complete sentence. So is “I can’t.”  If you must be polite, you can always offer up another time or another solution.
  • Never apologize when requesting something you’re entitled to have.  For example, when you need paperwork from a colleague or equipment set up for a presentation.
  • Don’t apologize when asking a subordinate to perform a task in their job description (“I’m sorry, but can you make copies of this?”).  It weakens your position.  Ask politely, be respectful, but don’t be sorry for asking someone to do their job.
  • Proofread e-mails to remove reflexive apologies.  Recently, I’ve caught myself writing the phrase, “My apologies” a lot, and I need to stop.
  • Never say you’re sorry for being on vacation or needing time to catch up after you’ve been on leave.  You are entitled to take a break and to occasionally be absent.  Acting like you need to apologize reinforces the idea that time away isn’t something employees deserve.
  • There is no reason to apologize for expressing an opinion contrary to someone else’s.  It weakens your argument.  It also concedes the high ground by putting their opinion in the prime position and makes yours just the other, lesser opinion.
  • Don’t apologize for delivering bad news, like telling someone they won’t be getting a bonus or a promotion.  Starting with “I’m sorry” shifts the narrative, and it undermines your power by making it sound like you’re the reason they’re not getting a raise, instead of their own performance.

These are just a sampling of the many ways that women reflexive apologize at work.  Apologizing is a vice, a weakness we indulge in because we don’t feel entitled to take up all the space that we deserve.  Say you’re sorry when it’s necessary and meaningful, but don’t apologize simply to make others more comfortable or interject.  #sorrynotsorry

Do you apologize a lot?  What kinds of apologies do you find yourself making?  And what tips and tricks do you have for quitting?

{Afterthought: A reader in the comments mentioned a Chrome Extension called Just Not Sorry.  It proofreads emails to remove apologies and phrases that weaken your argument.}

LEAVE A COMMENT

    23 comments

  1. Robyn says:

    Such a good post. I’ve recently been promoted and noticed how often I was unnecessarily apologizing. I have to consciously think through what I’m saying and writing to edit out reflex apologies. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am and i have nothing to apologize for!

    September 13, 2018/Reply
  2. Betsy says:

    This is so important! I’m one of the few females in my office, and I know I apologize (for anything and everything) more than anyone else around. One thing I have stopped doing (and proudly), is stopped apologizing when I almost walk into someone around a blind turn. “Excuse me” is key!!

    September 13, 2018/Reply
  3. RACHEL says:

    This post speaks to me and this is a great round up of instances where unneeded apologies occur in the workplace.

    I know that I apologize a LOT to ingratiate myself with colleagues that I do not know well and do not work with often. It is something I did in my 20s, and now that I am in my mid-30s and have progressed in my career, I recognize this is a problem. I wish I understood this earlier in my career!

    In order to combat the unneeded apology, I also re-read every email and remove any unneeded “my apologies” etc. Another word I delete is “just” which is an unneeded justification for something and removes my intent from a sentence. “Just checking in…” or “Just in case you didn’t see this…” is not something that I write anymore. I delete “just” whenever I see it in my writing. What is even better is that a group of girlfriends and I made a pact to remove “just” from our vocabulary. Having a group effort focused on it really helped!

    September 13, 2018/Reply
    • Kathleen says:

      I do the same thing with “just” in my emails. I realized I was creating context for checking in on projects or status on things. Now I try to remind myself that I am allowed to ask for updates and do not need context or to feel apologetic about it. It’s a hard habit to break but very important!

      September 13, 2018/Reply
  4. Megan R. says:

    Great advice! I used to be terrible about this, and have slowly been training myself out as I moved into more senior roles (and also got tired of minimizing myself to less-than-competent business associates. For those who use Gmail platforms for work or personal email, there’s a GREAT Chrome extension called Just Not Sorry. It scans your emails for apologies and other self-minimizing words (“just,” “actually” etc,) and underlines them for your review. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

    September 13, 2018/Reply
    • Katie says:

      Thank you for the “Just Not Sorry” recommendation! I’ve just added it to my browser now – this is something I need to work on, and having these things automatically flagged will be a huge help.

      September 13, 2018/Reply
  5. KCV says:

    Great reminder. I’ve really made the effort to avoid using “sorry” everywhere in my life.

    A great book is “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office.” One of the author’s points was that men don’t apologize when they go to throw paper away in front of someone, cut in front of someone while shopping, or barely brush/bump into someone. They stay silent, they don’t say anything. I have started doing that – it’s very empowering. Take up space.

    September 13, 2018/Reply
    • Jill says:

      Fwiw, men *should* say something in some instances when they don’t as a matter of common courtesy. If they bump into me and know they’ve done so, I expect a “pardon me.”

      September 13, 2018/Reply
  6. Liz says:

    I definitely struggle with “I’m sorry.” One thing I have found as a replacement when it comes to breaking bad news or stating something that’s potentially disagreeable is to start by saying, “unfortunately,” and then stating the situation. For me, this takes it away from it being my “fault” but still shows empathy about a situation that’s not ideal from the other person’s perspective.

    September 13, 2018/Reply
  7. Kristen says:

    My issue is that I thank people too much. I once re-read an email where I said “Thanks” three times (including using it to close the missive) … “thankfully” I had not hit send because the intent of the email was to instruct my employee to do something. Realized, “Why am I thanking him for doing his job BEFORE he does it?”

    September 13, 2018/Reply
  8. Anna says:

    I tend to poo poo wanna-be-inspirational commercials, but the Pantene “Sorry Not Sorry” commercial really stuck with me, and while it didn’t make me want to buy Pantene, it did actually make me realize how often I needlessly apologize and prompted me to change certain behaviors. I now always go back and edit emails to remove any apologies, try to change the way I phrase certain interactions, and have tried to empower interns just starting out to speak confidently and not to apologize for simply doing their job.

    September 13, 2018/Reply
  9. Meghan says:

    LOVE THIS. Another good one is instead of apology, try gratitude. Instead of “Sorry I’m late,” try “Thanks for being patient.” I’ve found it helps me fill the gap of saying what I want to say, but making about a positive emotion, rather than a negative one.

    September 13, 2018/Reply
    • Jill says:

      I realize I’m a naysayer to this thread but being late could merit a true apology. Are people kept waiting by the lateness? The urge not to over-apologize shouldn’t obscure common courtesy.

      September 13, 2018/Reply
      • Belle says:

        It depends on how late you are. Under-10 mins, thanks for waiting is acceptable. But if you’re really late, yes, apologize. But I’ve watched women walk into a meeting or event five minutes early and apologize just because others were there earlier.

        September 13, 2018/Reply
        • Jill Gerber says:

          Geez. No need to apologize for being early. 10 minutes late, I might argue merits an apology. Wasting others’ time, even 10 minutes, isn’t quite right.

          September 13, 2018/Reply
          • Belle says:

            If you want to apologize for being a small amount of time late, that’s a personal choice. But ask yourself why you’re apologizing, is it because you wasted their time or is it because you feel like you have to apologize because it’s expected so you can be an equal participant in the meeting. When I was working on the Hill, male staffers often made me wait 0-5mins and never apologized, just treated it like they were on time. The women ALWAYS apologized and then felt the need to justify their tardiness (IT’s been a crazy day; I was on a call that ran long; the boss needed something). If you think you should apologize, do, but don’t make it a bigger deal than it is. A simple sorry will do.

            September 13, 2018/Reply
            • Jill says:

              Good points, all. I wish men wouldn’t degrade courtesy that way. Women shouldn’t have to set an example. I might try saying “you’re late” to a rude male colleague as an experiment. 🙂

              September 13, 2018/Reply
    • Anna c says:

      THIS. I work in healthcare, so I often run behind with my patients due to someone being late, room not available, whatever. I’m definitely going to have to switch out “I’m sorry I was running late” to “Thanks for being patient, I’m running behind.” I appreciate your sharing the new phrase!!!

      September 13, 2018/Reply
    • M says:

      I’ve been trying to wean myself off these verbal crutches, but one area where I continue to apologize is when replying to an email that I’ve put off. I usually apologize for the delay in my response. Anyone have any thoughts on this? Appropriate? Or is there another phrase a la the “thank you for your patience” suggestion?

      September 17, 2018/Reply
  10. Jill says:

    I agree with so much of this. I will add that I’ve been chided — by a man — for apologizing too much. I’ll say I’m sorry if I want to (!). But agree with being mindful about unnecessary apologies.

    September 13, 2018/Reply
  11. Kate says:

    I have really mixed feelings about this. Belle is correct on most of the examples–no need to apologize for asking someone to do part of their job or refusing work that isn’t yours. But I know a lot of the backlash against over-apologizing is justified on the grounds that men don’t do it, and IMO, most men could stand to apologize more than they actually do for legitimate harm done to others or genuine mistakes. Is the solution really to give women in the workplace another metric to change their behavior on?

    September 17, 2018/Reply
    • Belle says:

      That’s not what this post is about. It’s about recognizing that in the absence of male consideration (considerateness?) in the work place, women have filled that gap. And we shouldn’t be weakening our own position to keep the peace, they need to step up, and we need to put the bag of bricks down.

      September 17, 2018/Reply
  12. Jenn says:

    Great post, Belle. I think Barbie nailed this one as well:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9ahiHpM3yQ&app=desktop

    September 18, 2018/Reply