How often do you find yourself saying “I’m sorry” in the course of a work day? How often do you really mean it? Do you ever consider how others perceive you when you utter those two little words? Could apologising be holding you back at work?
That seemingly innocuous phrase has been getting a ton of attention recently. First, there was Amy Schumer’s near-perfect sketch of a panel of all-female professionals, where the women managed to say nothing about their important work and spent most of the time apologising. Then, last June, writer Sloane Crosley called out women for apologising too often in a New York Times op-ed. Ann Friedman weighed in, demanding we give women a break and stop putting so much focus on the way we talk. There's even a Gmail plug-in that will prevent you from using sorry when you compose emails. #SorryNotSorry we like to apolosize.
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As with most things in life, it’s not really as simple as just cutting a word out of our vocabulary or asking others to give us a break (like that ever worked). Career advice is tricky, since it's often overly general and doesn’t apply to everyone. One of the highlights of Schumer’s sketch is when a panelist tries to give a young woman in the audience a pep talk and ends up apologising for her advice. That’s exactly how I feel: Sorry, but I don’t have all the answers.
One of the best parts of my job is working with so many smart women. The majority of Refinery29 employees are female and several of the top management roles are held by women. Much of the advice I read about navigating the workplace is geared toward young women who have male bosses. How do the dynamics change when there’s a woman in charge? And do you have to change the words you use depending on the gender of your boss?
When we first started discussing the idea for this story — about women and their tendency to over-apologise — one woman on the R29 edit team came to mind. Jess is a great writer, an incredible ideas person, and a hard worker. Nearly every time she sends me a Gchat, she starts with “I’m sorry.” My first thought was to get her to write about her tendency to apologise (so much so that former colleagues would say “fuck you” to her every time she said “I’m sorry”). But when I started thinking about “I’m sorry,” I began to notice other colleagues who frequently apologised — even when there was nothing to be sorry for.
So, I issued three of them a challenge: Count the number of times you say “sorry” over the course of a work day, and then we’ll talk about why they feel compelled to use the word so often.
Natasha, our lovely photo editor, said “sorry” 47 times over the course of a 9-hour workday. She was quick to point out that she’s British and was training someone that day. Still, that’s approximately 11 “sorries” per hour.
On the other end of the spectrum is Chloe, our super talented associate home editor. I sit next to her, so she knew this experiment was in the works and volunteered (unlike Jess and Natasha, who I had to coerce). The Monday she counted up her “sorries,” she had a pretty quiet day, not interacting with too many people and only racked up nine. She also admitted to a bit of self-policing. Undoubtedly, thinking about what you’re saying can change the words you use.
Jess came in the middle with 17. She also claimed that it was a quiet day. She didn’t have to bug people and could focus on her own work. It's hard to imagine how many times she would have said the word on a busy day.
While I was interested to know how frequently they were apologising, I also wanted to know why they felt the need. There was a common thread uniting all three. Jess, Natasha, and Chloe all said they apologised in moments when they felt uncomfortable asserting their authority.
“I think it’s a filler word,” Chloe says. “I say it mostly when I’m a little uncomfortable with someone, and I’m not confident enough in the decision I’m making, or maybe it’s a little cloudy on whose responsibility it is.”
There’s also an element of empathy in there. Natasha says sorry “if I hear about something bad happening to someone and there’s nothing I can do to fix it.” Often times, the “sorries” flow when there’s a mixture of awkwardness and empathy.
“I IM with ‘sorry’ because I know I’m going to badger them about something and they’re busy, so it’s like, ‘I apologise for interrupting your really busy work day,’” Jess says.
It’s easy to relate to that sentiment: We want to be liked, we want to feel like we’re all on the same team, and it can be nerve-wracking to interrupt your boss or coworker with a request. But are you putting forward a negative image when you say “I’m sorry” too often? Morning Joe host and founder of the Know Your Value conference Mika Brzezinski thinks so. In June, she got a lot of attention, after she offered advice for women trying to make it in media. At the top of her list: Stop apologising.
“It sets the conversation up at a disadvantage that you don’t need,” Brzezinski said by phone. “I think along with ‘I’m sorry’ comes the fluttering eyes and bad posture and maybe the raised shoulder as if to protect yourself from what’s coming and, like, just cringe-y, nervous, jumpy behaviour. I’m asking women to own up to that, to stop saying they’re sorry, and to stand up straight and to look at people in the eye and be cool! Just be cool with yourself.”
It can be hard to be cool, and it can be harder not to turn to a quick apology when you’re in an uncomfortable position. Brzezinski even admitted that she has to police her language. The day of our call, she was late for an interview because of an important meeting. Rather than apologise, she thanked the interviewer for her patience. It was a brief exchange, and they moved onto the topic at hand, without the awkward back-and-forth that can come with an apology — especially one that’s not entirely sincere.
It’s that lack of sincerity that Crosley is focused on in her Times op-ed:
"To me," she writes, "they sound like tiny acts of revolt, expressions of frustration or anger at having to ask for what should be automatic. They are employed when a situation is so clearly not our fault that we think the apology will serve as a prompt for the person who should be apologising."
Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics from Georgetown University and author of several books, including Talking From 9 to 5, has written extensively on the topic of what women should and should not say at work. She agrees that women aren’t always apologising when they “I’m sorry.”
“Often, it has nothing whatsoever to do with an apology but just taking the other person’s feelings into account,” she says. “And sometimes, it’s a way to get the other person to apologise.”
But Tannen is reluctant to tell women to cut the word from their vocabulary entirely. The biggest thing, she notes, is that there are no black-and-white guidelines.
“I do think that there are situations where women would do better to bite their tongues and cut ‘I’m sorry’ out of their repertoire. It ends up coming across as, ‘She thinks everything’s her fault, she’s weak,’" she says. “However, if they don’t do it, they’re seen as too aggressive.”
Wrapping up my call with Tannen, I can’t help but lament that it seems like we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Which takes me back to Friedman’s article, who points out the problem with this kind of advice:
"Asking women to modify their speech is just another way we are asked to internalise and compensate for sexist bias in the world," she writes. "We can’t win by eliminating 'just' from our emails and 'like' from our conversations."
So where does that leave us? Do we follow Brzezinski’s advice and stop with the unnecessary “sorries?" Or do we embrace our faults and focus on the more important stuff, like doing good work?
Maybe the best solution is to recognise that every workplace is different, just like every worker and every boss (male or female) comes with their own set of talents and ticks. As Tannen points out, everything can be annoying if you repeat it enough. So, 47 “sorries” might be too many (sorry, Natasha), but there is power in empathy and we should learn how to harness it.
Let’s take a little bit of everyone’s advice: Stand up straight, look the person in the eye, and say “I apologise.” But only do it when you’re truly sorry.