I live in a country where over-apologising seems to be in people’s DNA. I’m also a woman which means that, statistically, I perceive more things as wrongdoings and, therefore, tend to say “sorry” more frequently than men. In short, I apologise more than need and would like to.
Being able to express remorse for our mistakes is an important life skill but I don’t want to throw my sorries left and right without consideration. This is why I’ve started to “un-sorry” myself and I avoid saying the words unless I have a strong and legitimate reason to. The trouble is, oftentimes you need to replace an apology with something — different words or behaviour — and these don’t come naturally if you are a serial apologiser. You need to learn them.
What should you say when another unjustified “sorry” is about to roll off your tongue? Here’s a list of things to try next time.
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1. When You’re Late or You’ve Made a Mistake
In her TEDx talk “How Apologies Kill Our Confidence”, Maja Jovanovic suggests replacing “sorry” with “thank you”. This is my favourite way of dodging apologies because it’s the most pleasant one. Instead of focusing on the negative behaviour (the fact that you’re late to a meeting, for example), you acknowledge the positive one (the fact that your client waited for you). You express gratitude and avoid knocking your confidence down — a win-win situation! Here are some examples of effective sorry swaps:
“Thanks for waiting for me.” (rather than “Sorry I’m late.”)
“Thank you for being flexible.” (rather than “Sorry we had to reschedule.”)
“Thanks for letting me know. Do you have more feedback?” (rather than “Sorry about this. It won’t happen again.”)
2. When You Want to Share Your Opinion
Have you ever found yourself in a meeting wanting to add your thoughts to a conversation and starting with “I’m sorry to interrupt but…”? Let me get this straight: you’re not interrupting anyone.
Imagine if everyone started their sentences by apologising for opening their mouths— what a colossal waste of everyone’s time. If you’ve been invited to a meeting, you’re there to engage, also by speaking up. You don’t need to ask for permission to talk. Next time you want to join a debate, try this:
“I have an idea.”
“How about we try this…”
“I have a different opinion.”
3. When You’re Done Sharing Your Opinion
The same way we would apologise before speaking up, we sometimes do it after “talking for too long”. I remember watching a heart-breaking and emotional speech by Blake Lively about child pornography. Her words moved me. They reached a place deep inside me and I knew they would stay there forever. This requires skill.
After finishing the speech, Blake became a little flustered and threw in a “sorry for talking for so long” right before rushing off the stage. The magic she created moments before, her charisma that got me thinking about what I could do to tackle the problem she talked so eloquently about were now mixed up with other feelings harder to define. That apology was unnecessary and didn’t belong there.
When you talk about things that are important to you or someone else, you can thank your audience for attention but never apologise for taking your time. NEVER.
4. When You Need a Favour or Time to Talk
We’ve all heard the infamous “sorry to bother you” opener and it’s time we officially bury it in the cemetery of apologies. Asking someone to do something for us might feel uncomfortable — after all, we’re demanding their time, effort or resources. But there’s no need to apologise for needing help before you even asked. You’re destroying your confidence, making them feel awkward (they’re likely to respond “oh no, that’s fine”) and you’re going to do it anyway. So own it and ask with confidence, perhaps opening the conversation with something like this:
“Do you have time to talk?”
“I wanted to ask you for your help.”
“I have a question for you. Can we have a chat?”
5. When You Didn’t Reply to a Message/Email
I don’t always immediately respond to my friends’ messages and I used to apologise for that a lot. I don’t anymore because I understand that I can’t (and don’t want to) be constantly “available”. It’s ok to be busy living your life and others need to respect that. If something needs your urgent attention, the other person will let you know or will find another way to contact you.
Maja Jovanovic recommends simply saying what you were busy with, like “I was driving”. If your response is really late, you can always find a way to thank your friend for their patience. Or…say nothing because I remind you, there’s no reason to be sorry.
6. When You Bumped into Someone
The most notorious sorry trigger of them all — at least in the UK, where I live. To clarify, when I say “bumping into someone” I mean the broad spectrum of violations of one’s personal space (plus the space around the person’s personal space). This might include crushing into someone but also brushing our coat against their coat when passing, walking too close next to them in a corridor or stopping in front of them when you’ve realised you’re about to have some physical contact with them (thus preventing it). The most absurd thing is that when this occurs, both people tend to react with a “Sorry!”.
The first rule is that you don’t need to say anything if you’re the person whose space is being violated. If you’re the intruder, then Jovanovic suggests opting for:
7. When Someone’s Going Through a Hard Time
When a friend is sharing something difficult they’re going through, try to be empathetic, not sympathetic (yup, these aren’t the same). Instead of saying how sorry you are for them, which can make them feel belittled, put yourself in their shoes to imagine how they’re feeling. The point is not to feel the same emotion but to try and understand their world. With such a perspective, you might want to say:
“It must have been hard for you to leave your family.”
“How does this make you feel?”
You don’t need to use any words at all: showing them that you’re listening or holding their hand can be equally, if not more, powerful.
Over-apologising is a habit like any other and it takes time to unlearn a deep-rooted behaviour. I bet you’ll be catching yourself saying “sorry” on auto-pilot for months to come and it will be frustrating. If you’re really struggling, set up a “sorry fund” —a pot where you’ll transfer an X amount of cash for every unnecessary apology you offer. I created one for my best friend and, £14 later, her sorries are a lot more justified and I rarely charge her anymore. We are planning to donate the sum to a women’s charity.