Over-Using “Sorry”

It’s helpful to explore the appropriate time to use the word “sorry.” In general, we don’t use it enough, in the sense that we are typically too slow to acknowledge responsibility for the harms we cause others.

But “sorry” can be mis-used, and over-used. I blogged about this in December, citing an article noting that people use the word “sorry” when they really mean something else. Last month, Maya Janovic gave a TED Talk, entitled “How Apologies Kill Our Confidence,” suggesting that over-use of “sorry” indicates – and broadcasts — lack of confidence. She has noticed this tendency especially among women. For example, women tend to begin comments in committee meetings with “sorry,” as in, “Sorry, this may sound silly, but I was wondering…” or, “Sorry, is this a good time to ask a question?”

She recommends that women stop saying “I’m sorry.” I don’t think she actually means ceasing it altogether, but that’s what she said. I think she’s really advocating for women to pay more attention to when they use “sorry,” and either omit it sometimes, or substitute a more accurate phrase, like, “pardon me” or “excuse me,“ that doesn’t carry the weight of an apology.

She describes how, when a male colleague arrived late for a work meeting, instead of apologizing, he said simply, “Thanks for waiting.” She finds this more refreshing than what a woman would typically do – apologize, offer explanations, and basically humiliate herself. I’m not persuaded. If I were one of the meeting attendees who knocked myself out to arrive on time, the male colleague’s thank-you wouldn’t quite fill the gap for me. In situations like this where a person really is at fault, an apology is in order.

The title of her talk is exaggerated. She’s not really talking about apologies, she’s just talking about the word “sorry.” Starting a comment with “Sorry” may not even be an apology, and an honest, well-placed apology will not kill confidence. But I think she’s onto something: mis-using and over-using “sorry” cheapens it. If we say “sorry” when something isn’t even our fault – as when someone bumps into us – then, when we really do need to apologize, that word won’t have as much heft.

It’s worth paying attention to when we say “sorry” needlessly. But that doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to say we’re sorry when we mess up.

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