Remember a few years ago when this commercial sparked a larger conversation around women’s tendency to say “I’m sorry” with more frequency than men? It prompted the questions, “why is that?” and “what can we do about it?” In terms of the ‘why’, according to a study published in 2010 in the journal Psychological Science, “women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior,” and are therefore more likely to feel the need to apologize in everyday situations. That Pantene campaign sparked articles on every major online media outlet from Time to Forbes to The New York Times to Huffington Post. As with any worthwhile conversation, there were a range of opinions on the “what can we do about it?” piece, spanning viewpoints from how to change the behavior to ones that felt the push to change this behavior was unkind to women and unnecessary.
I wanted to circle back on this conversation because it’s something I’ve begun to take notice of more in more in my own behavior as well as the women around me. I’m firmly rooted in the camp of people who believe this is a behavior that, as women, we should be mindful of and work to change. Why? Not because I think it is weak or wrong to say “I’m sorry” but because I think it’s worthwhile to examine what’s behind your desire to say “I’m sorry.” As the study pointed out, women feel there more things they need to apologize for and I believe this is rooted in something deeper about how we view and treat ourselves. The tendency to apologize for very typical behavior is driven by insecurity, lack of self-esteem or confidence, a diminished sense of entitlement, our wish to avoid criticism, the desire to please others, and almost guaranteed, the shame we carry tied to the unrealistic vision we have as women to be able to do-it-all.
For many women, myself included, apologies are linked with our perception of politeness. We’re so adverse to being perceived as rude that we feel the insertion of an apology is one way to make us less obtrusive before we speak up. Using the word “sorry” before inserting our thoughts into a conversation or as a preface to a request for help. We carry shame and fear around not being enough and so we apologize for who we are and how we act in correlation to our projections of how we’re not matching up to other people’s expectations. We have an unhealthy desire for perfection and so apologize for work or behavior that’s anything but. We doubt our allowance to ask a question or disagree and so preface the interjection with “sorry”. In all of these scenarios, “sorry” is tied to something altogether different from a sincere apology for wrongdoing or harm. It’s tied to our self-worth.
The reality is that the majority of the time we’re not even aware that this is the reason we say “sorry”. Even worse, we’re unaware of the fact that we’re frequently apologizing as we go about our day to day. I’ve noticed that saying “sorry” has simply become a verbal tic. If you’ve ever taken a public speaking class, the instructor will tell you to be mindful of your tendency to say “um” and “like.” They suggest you film yourself and not only count the number of times you say it but to be mindful of when you’re drawn to saying it. These words are unnecessary fillers in your speech and the recommendation is to instead let there be a purposeful pause while you gather the words for what you really want to say. This can be challenging as using silence deliberately makes people uncomfortable. I see the process of training ourselves not to apologize so much as very similar. To be mindful of how often we say it, what the scenario is when we say it, how we’re really feeling when we say it and what we could say instead.
Our words are powerful. Overuse of the phrase “I’m sorry” has the power to diminish the sentiment when you truly mean it. There is strength in using our words more deliberately. And in acknowledging our self-worth. In reality, we are not sorry to ask for a deliverable that should have been sent to us weeks ago, or to need a day off to tend to a sick family member or ourselves, or to expect the receipt of something we paid for, or to be bumped into, or to have an intelligent thought, or to ask a clarifying question, or to express our opinion, or to rely on someone else, or to be who we are. That’s right, I’m not sorry! I’m not sorry for my existence or my imperfections. I have a right to be seen, heard and known. I’m not sorry for taking up space or asking for what I deserve. I have a right to be treated as equal and human. I’m not sorry for shining brightly or being bold. The world needs more of that from us.
The extent to which you work to remove “sorry” from your vocabulary is up to you. Maybe you start by noticing how often you say it by keeping a simple tally. Then begin to notice the scenarios triggering you to apologize and jot it down. The next step might be to analyze that list for the underlying feelings that triggered you to say “sorry” and finally writing down some ideas for what you could’ve said instead. Here are some suggested phrases you can try:
- I’m sure you understand
- For example: The sitter cancelled so I can’t make it to dinner tonight, I’m sure you understand
- Instead of: I’m so sorry but I can’t make it to dinner because our sitter canceled. Sorry if this messes up your evening. I hope you can forgive me
- Thank you
- For example: Thank you for your patience
- Instead of: Sorry I’m late
- I’d appreciate if you
- For example: I’d appreciate if you can get this to me by the end of the day
- Instead of: Sorry but can you get this to me by the end of the day?
- I need a favor
- For example: I need a favor, can you proofread this report before I send it to the team?
- Instead of: Sorry to ask you this but can you help me proofread this?
- I can see you’re busy.
- For example: I can see you’re busy, I just need to a minute of your time.
- Instead of: Sorry can I bother you for a minute?
- Let me say this
- For example: Let me say this, if I had to choose I’d pick the blue one over the yellow.
- Instead of: Sorry I like the blue one better.
- I see my mistake
- For example: I see my mistake, let me fix that.
- Instead of: Sorry this was wrong, let me redo it.
These are examples of strong but polite phrases. They keep you honest in expressing what you need to say without apology. They acknowledge our humanness. Just as easily as “sorry” passes through our lips, it finds its way into our text messages and emails. There are apps and plugins that can help remove “sorry” from your emails if you’re into that. Personally, I’d like to permanently eliminate the phrase “sorry for the delayed response” in email conversations and replace it with an honest or witty reply. Here are some ideas I found:
- As you no doubt know by now, I’m a notorious procrastinator and seem to be getting better at it as I get older
- Due to other commitments, I’m checking email no more than once a week, often less. If it’s truly urgent (cannot wait a week), please call my cell. If you don’t have it, thank you for waiting until I can get back to the inbox.
- Thanks so much for your kind note last month! Yep, it was definitely exciting for our team to [fill in the blank]—things have been crazy here ever since, which is why I’m so late in answering your email.
- You have successfully reached me. I am, however, terrible at responding to emails. Rest assured, I have read your message, and you may or may not receive a response from me in the next day to decade. I realize that this could result in a missed opportunity for me.
- Auto responders are really impersonal, but I want you to know a few things. 1) I really appreciate your email. Thanks for sending it. 2) Because of my client and travel schedule I don’t always respond right away. I try to carve out time twice a day just to give to my e-mail, but this doesn’t always happen. 3) I will write you back as soon as I can. If this is REAL SUPER AMAZING IMPORTANT and I don’t get back to you right away please feel free to e-mail me again to remind me. It is not that I don’t care, but I might read your email between clients, not have time in the moment to write you back, and then miss it in my inbox later. Nothing personal, I just sometimes get distracted by shiny objects.
The reason I like these responses is they’re honest reflections of our boundaries and expectations. Saying “I’m sorry for the delayed response” to me is a direct correlation to our belief that we’re lacking and to our projections of what other people expect of us. If we instead are open and honest in sharing our boundaries and expectations for ourselves, we get to set the stage for what others expect from us.
There are plenty of other examples of areas where setting boundaries and expectations for ourselves can be beneficial, this just happens to be one that I see so frequently among the women in my life. Likewise, there are many other ways to purposefully shift your language away from “I’m sorry.” If this resonates with you, I would love to hear your story! What are your useful phrases? How do you deal with your “sorry” triggers?