If you’re five minutes late to a meeting, do you blurt out, I’m sorry?
If someone bumps into you, do you habitually say, sorry?
How often do you start your sentences with the phrase, I’m sorry?
If you can’t keep track of the number of times you apologize, there is an app for that: Just Not Sorry, a Chrome app, flags apologetic language in emails. It’s been downloaded more than 32,000 times.
Pop culture has seized on the notion that women say sorry too much. Comedian Amy Schumer underscored the absurdity of its overuse in a skit where a group of exceedingly accomplished women repeatedly apologize, even when a male helper spills coffee on one of their laps and the hot liquid kills her in an improbably gruesome way. And, in June 2018, Barbie, the famous doll figure, posted a vlog entry titled Sorry Reflex, which challenged her youthful audience to count the number of times they use sorry in their speech.
Whether it’s literally true or not, the perception that women say sorry too often is out there, threatening to undermine those who want to rise to the top. At least a few high-ranking professional women who have experimented with cutting (or at least reducing) apologetic language from their speech say that it’s worth the effort.
Mary Fox, CEO of Marlow, a San Francisco-based professional coaching service, recognized the habit when she worked for the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “If I bumped into somebody or someone did something to me, I apologized,” she says. “I caught myself apologizing for everything.” She focused on reworking her language and noticed results. Fox observes that vanquishing her verbal tic makes her apologies more meaningful. “I do apologize plenty, but usually when I’ve actually screwed up,” she says. “If you apologize all day long, what value does your apology hold? It’s not really worth as much. Are you really sorry if you don’t reserve it for when you are really sorry?”
Just Not Sorry, a Chrome app launched in 2015, flags apologetic language in emails.
It’s been downloaded more than 32,000 times.
Similarly, Roberta Sydney, president, CEO, and board chair of Sydney Associates, a Boston real estate business, first considered the implications of speech in general after engaging in professional coaching in the early 1990s, and she continues to educate herself by reading the works of feminist linguist Deborah Cameron, among others. “I think a lot about my language and I really think about it when I write,” she says. “I use oops instead of sorry if I send out an email. I don’t feel like I’m apologizing. To me, it feels more innocuous. I feel like I’m taking responsibility for it if I say sorry.”
The nuances of the word’s overuse was especially noticeable to JuE Wong, Global CEO of Moroccanoil, whose first language is Mandarin Chinese, but she speaks English at work. She has the unusual perspective of having added apologetic words and phrases to her business communications early in her career and subsequently taking them out. “Saying sorry was not what I was used to, I’d get straight to the point,” says, adding that Mandarin doesn’t allow for sentences that start with I’m sorry. Upon arriving in America in 1996, Wong observed a cultural shift. “I noticed people fudged their sentences and took a softer approach. I used it (apologetic language) more, only to go back to the beginning later in life.”
All three women reported feeling more confident after they consciously scaled back their use of apologetic language. This is not to say they’ve stopped saying sorry entirely. They just save it for when it’s truly warranted. “I use it when there’s a sincere apology needed,” Sydney says. “It’s not just an I’m sorry. It’s, ‘I’m sorry, this is what I did or didn’t do,’ and a pledge to do better in the future. To me, that’s what an apology is about: Acknowledge what you’ve done, take responsibility for what you’ve done, and clean it up.”
Sally McConnell-Ginet, professor emerita of linguistics at Cornell University, cautions that women over-apologizing is “a widespread belief. Whether or not there’s real substance matters less than how they use it: ‘This explains why you’re having problems on the job’ as opposed to men not giving you credit for what you do,” she says.
McConnell-Ginet notes that reflexive apologies can be just that—verbal tics—and verbal tics that let us speak without thinking through what we’re saying weaken us and our messages, regardless of the specific words we come to rely on. “I’m a big believer in change and trying to keep yourself flexible, and responding in different ways to different situations,” she says. “You can’t expect any strategy you mechanically turn on will be the appropriate thing to do. You’ve got to be on your toes. It makes life not as easy as we might like, but that’s how it is. We can’t automate it all.”