You’ve probably heard people around you slip the phrase “I’m sorry” into conversation—sometimes as a real apology, other times as a mere transitional or buffer phrase. Unfortunately, this habit can confuse listeners and discredit the speaker.
Women, in particular, often say “I’m sorry” as a way of showing concern, empathy, and understanding. The term is used to indicate their personal connection, appreciation of a problem, and sense of care and closeness. “I’m sorry” functions for women as shorthand for “I’m with you. You and I are on the same page.”
Women’s use of “I’m sorry” to express affinity and compassion is understandable, and often even admirable, but it can be quite bad in many workplace situations. For example, suppose your boss or a colleague says:
- “Our client is upset.”
- “We just lost that account.”
- “Our presentation went badly.”
Responding to remarks with “I’m sorry” can suggest you are in some way responsible for things having gone wrong, or, at a minimum, you are clueless about the seriousness of the situation.
If things go off the rails—and you have had nothing to do with the mishap—you should avoid “I’m sorry” and focus instead on how things can be put right, perhaps by saying something like:
- “I have an idea of how we can calm him down.”
- “How can we make sure that doesn’t happen again?”
- “I think we need to rethink our approach, and here is one approach we might consider.”
In other words, in situations in which things have gone amiss and you are in no way responsible, find a way to direct the conversation toward fixing the problem or changing matters going forward. However you respond, don’t appear to be apologizing by saying “I’m sorry.” Perhaps someone else has something to apologize about—and you do not.
There are, of course, situations in which saying “I’m sorry” is perfectly appropriate as an expression of sympathy and solidarity. For example, saying “I’m sorry” or—even better—”I am so sorry. Is there anything I can do to help?” may be the best thing you can say when a friend tells you they suffered a recent injury or their partner is sick.
These types of “bad news” situations are very different from those that involve someone’s personal screwup. With these unfortunate and faultless circumstances, saying “I’m sorry,” perhaps with some further elaboration, is likely to be helpful and very much appreciated.
There is a third type of situation in which saying “I’m sorry” may not raise a doubt about your culpability, comprehension, or competence, but which is nevertheless a weak response and is likely to be viewed as merely perfunctory. For example, suppose someone says:
- “It’s raining.”
- “The game has been called off.”
- “We won’t be able to meet this week because of the virus.”
In this type of situation, a response other than “I’m sorry” is likely to be far more appreciated and appropriate. The best approach is to cast things in a more positive light or offer a possible solution. Saying something like the following might be useful and appreciated:
- “I hear the weather will be better tomorrow.”
- “When have they scheduled a makeup game?”
- “What about trying to set up a Zoom meeting?”
The existence of these very different types of situations should make it clear that saying “I’m sorry” should hardly be used as a universal response when matters are not as one might wish them to be. Yet many women use the phrase as if it were a universal solvent, the appropriate response no matter what the cause of occurrence.
Some women’s tendency to utilize “I’m sorry” so pervasively is often due to their having internalized the common gender stereotype that women should be kind, caring, and concerned about other people. Hence, saying “I’m sorry” is a way for those women to present themselves as quintessentially feminine.
The problem is that by conforming to this stereotype, a woman often undermines her ability to project an impression of confidence, competence, and strength. Thus, there is a clear double bind for women, what we call the Goldilocks Dilemma. When women are seen as caring and essentially communal, they are seen as likable—but typically without leadership potential. On the other hand, if they present themselves as confident and forceful, they can be seen as talented but bossy, arrogant, and unlikable.
Women’s frequent use of “I’m sorry” is thus often an effort to tone down their otherwise confident self-presentation, to appear softer and compassionate—and therefore likable. For example, some women will say “I’m sorry” when making requests or giving directions in order not to come across as domineering, aggressive, or overbearing. Thus, a woman might say, “I’m sorry, but I would like to ask you a few questions about your memo” or “I’m sorry, but could you get this back to me by 5:00?” But using “I’m sorry” in this way can easily backfire by making the woman’s request unclear (“Does she really need to ask me questions?”) or making her appear unsure of herself (“She can’t really need it by 5:00.”).
Men, on the other hand, typically resist saying “I’m sorry” unless an apology is actually warranted—and even then they use the phrase reluctantly. Men are likely to see apologizing as diminishing their power and increasing the power of another person. From this power-shifting perspective, men often view women who frequently say “I’m sorry” as lacking self-confidence and power.
You should drop “I’m sorry” as a way of softening your image. Save it for situations in which it is clearly an expression of sympathy and concern or when you should apologize—when you have messed up by missing a deadline and upset an important customer or client. In these situations, an appropriate apology is called for and can strengthen your connections, ease conflicts, and make you appear more likable.
Here are some tips about apologizing in the career context:
- Not every mistake you make calls for an apology. Consider whether an apology is expected, whether it will reduce anger or disappointment, and whether it will promote a more harmonious business relationship going forward. Unless you can answer yes to at least one of those questions, move on and put the incident behind you without a second thought. And when you do make a mistake, keep in mind—you can apologize for messing things up, but the acknowledgment doesn’t solve the true reason for your mistake.
- If an apology is called for, make it promptly, forthrightly, and sincerely. Look the other person in the eyes (and by all means try to always apologize face-to-face, whether in person or via Zoom), speak firmly, without hesitation or mumbling, and be direct and brief. Wait calmly for the other person’s response, and once the mistake has been addressed, move on to another topic without embarrassment or discomfort.
- Apologize to the right person. You don’t need to tell your colleagues, “I am so sorry I bungled John’s project.” Apologize to John, go back to work, and don’t make the same mistake again. Placing your regret on public display makes you appear vulnerable, weak, and lacking in confidence. A mistake is not a crime, and shame is not an appropriate emotional response.
- Context is always important. Consider the position, gender, and personality of the person to whom you are apologizing. If you need to apologize to a senior person who has not been supportive of your career, you need to think far more carefully about when, how, and where you should apologize than you would if you owed an apology to a coworker with whom you have a close personal relationship. An apology to a senior person is likely to be far more important to your career than an apology to a close coworker. Even so, just because the situation is difficult, don’t put off the apology or give it in an excessive, overly subservient way or in an offhand or half-hearted manner.
An appropriate apology is always welcome when it is called for, but use “I’m sorry” as an expression of concern and sympathy when no fault is involved. And when you intend to use the term as an apology, only turn to it when you are the one who needs to make amends.
Andie Kramer and Al Harris are communication and gender bias experts and the authors of Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work and It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace: Women’s Conflict at Work and the Bias That Built It. They have spent more than 30 years helping women advance in their careers through writing, speaking, and mentoring.