When I was a Masters student, I often had to ask research organizations to share their data for my thesis. One time, after sending an email, much to my chagrin I realized I’d asked for the wrong set.
I wrote them another email, apologizing for the miscommunication and asking for the other data set.
Before I sent it off, I gave it to my supervisor to check for tone and errors. She sent it back with just a single change: She removed the phrase “I’m sorry.”
“Never apologize,” she said to me as she handed me back my draft.
“Never pretend it wasn’t something you set out to do. If you go through life broadcasting every misstep you make to all parties involved, they’ll take you a lot less seriously, and you’ll take yourself a lot less seriously.
Honestly, I was surprised. Apologizing, to me, seemed like a common and polite way to express your gratitude at someone taking time out of their day to do a small favor.
I raised this with my supervisor, confused and afraid of offending an important research group. When she pointed out that it would be incredibly minor for them to send the data to me, and that I didn’t need to be sorry, I actually apologized to her. For apologizing. She pointed out the ridiculousness of that, and with new eyes, I realized she was right.
“Those who refuse to express remorse maintain a greater sense of control and feel better about themselves than those who take no action after making a mistake.” — CJ Petrucci, California State University
I started re-reading all the emails I was sending. I checked myself when I spoke to my superiors. Even when I spoke to my friends, I kept a close eye on what I said. And what I spotted was that I apologized all the time. Even when I wasn’t sorry. Even when it wasn’t my fault. Even if nobody had done anything wrong. I just said “sorry.” Even when I bumped into someone else in line at the supermarket.
Why do we apologize? And why should we choose not to? Was my supervisor right, and should I avoid apologizing over minor things? I was definitely over-apologizing, but surely there were still some instances where it was right to say sorry.
After looking online, I discovered there has been a lot of research done on apologies, and the mental state it confers both on the people apologizing and those being apologized to.
One of the primary reasons was anxiety. It’s an involuntary urge that often doesn’t have anything to do with a feeling of remorse. We use apologies as a way to please people, and let them know we’re not confrontational, or aggressive. And most times, it works. Sometimes, it’s more to do with trying to get the person you’re interacting with to view you in a more positive light, by preemptively accepting fault.
“It could be conceptualized as a safety behavior, an overprotective behavior, or compensatory strategy.” — Martin Antony, director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Lab at Ryerson University.
So, should we do as my supervisor says and never apologize? Is it better to walk through life as though we made no mistakes?
For me, I decided to stop over-apologizing. I want to use my words with precision, only apologizing when I am at fault, or when I truly feel remorse.
Never apologizing is an extreme step. After all, sometimes I’ll step on someone’s foot, or make a mistake. It’s right to apologize for that. However, to apologize for simply existing, as though my presence is an inconvenience, or for something that isn’t my fault lessens the value of the word for when I truly mean it.
Additionally, saying sorry — especially when I’m not in the wrong — lowers my social capital among people who don’t use apologies in the same way. When you say sorry for something minor, like asking for another data set, the person receiving your sorry is automatically going to think you are in the wrong somehow. After all, you’ve just admitted it.
To help me cut down on apologetic language, I’ve installed an extension. When I write emails, it underlines when I say “sorry” or “just”, as in, “Sorry, I just wanted to check in with you.” It's helpful because if nothing else it makes me question if I actually am sorry. Why would I apologize to check in? Had I done so several times already that week? Then maybe my check-in could wait. If there was no reason to apologize, then I could remove it and continue.
Sometimes I still mean my sorries. But most times, I take it out and replace it with more meaningful language. My communication is more precise, and I’m more of an authority among my clients in my current job. I’m not sorry for getting in contact with them — why would I be? — and I’m not sorry for doing my job, of checking in with them.
Apologize only when you mean it. The rest of the time, find better language to express what you truly mean.
When you want to make a good impression, you don’t walk into a room hunched over, eyes down. You stride in confidently, making eye contact and appearing in command.
It’s the same with language. By speaking unapologetically, you’ll find yourself more respected and more confident in yourself.