I have found that people – probably more likely women, though I don’t have data on it – tend to use the phrase “I’m sorry” in contexts other than when they are actually apologizing.
[As a side note, I did just in a quick search find evidence that women apologize more than men do, because women believe they commit more offenses than men do. That’s relevant to my second major point here, so stay tuned.]
My general advice is that in professional (work) contexts, if something happens and it’s not your fault, don’t apologize. As an example, if you are meeting with a student who plagiarized, don't say, "I'm sorry this is happening to you." Even if it feels natural to say it. It's not your fault, so don't apologize. You can say, "It's an unfortunate situation" or "I know you must be feeling disappointed." But using “I’m sorry” implies that you are somehow to blame in this situation, when the student is the one who plagiarized – you are not actually sorry that you have a policy against plagiarism. Or that you plan to enforce it.
I frequently notice young women (often graduate students) apologize in these types of situations, and I don't think it helps their interactions. Of course, if you are at fault, do apologize. People often get defensive when they are actually at fault, and a swift apology can avoid a prolonged game of blame hot potato.
When I posted this idea on social media a few years ago, someone responded by saying that the phrase “I’m sorry” has many different meanings in the United States, and that we often use it to express compassion. I agree, but I also think that’s part of the problem. We often DO use “I’m sorry” to express compassion. And that’s fine in certain contexts where it could not be interpreted as accepting blame – for instance, if a colleague tells you they are sick and you say “I’m sorry to hear that.” But the other meaning of “I’m sorry” Is “I did something wrong,” and that can be misperceived. Thus, I recommend avoiding it in situations where it could all be perceived as your fault, and thus, accepting any blame. That’s why it’s helpful to think of other phrases, such as “I know you must feel…” or “I imagine you are really upset about it…” Those phrases express compassion without taking on any blame.
More generally, I recommend avoiding apologizing when you feel inadequate. Again, apologizing makes sense if you wronged someone (e.g., you missed a deadline) or possibly if you disappointed them (e.g., you have the thesis draft for the deadline, but you really didn’t spend as much time as you should have). But don’t apologize just because you aren’t feeling confident. I initially received related advice during my first year of grad school. The four first year grad students in our cohort presented our thesis ideas at proseminar and each starting with "I'm sorry I'm not very far along" or "mine's not as interesting as hers was...". A professor told us never to start a talk with an apology, but to be strong and confident in our ideas. I believe she pointed out that we were all women standing up there starting our talks with an apology rather than presenting our ideas with confidence. Of course, in this instance, we likely all WERE intentionally taking on blame, in that we all DID feel bad that we weren’t far along or that our ideas weren’t as developed as someone else.
But why start a presentation, or a lecture, with an acknowledgement that you could have done better, or that you aren’t proud of what you’re about to say? That sets the audience up to think you have somehow failed.
I know how easy it is to default to apologizing. One year at SRCD I had confused the days of my 2 talks and had not at all prepared for the talk I was giving. I had spent the last 2 days practicing my other talk. My instinct was to start the presentation with the story of what had happened, and an explanation/apology for not being as polished as I would like to be. But instead, I just gave the talk. It was certainly not my best presentation ever. But it also wasn’t terrible.
Just this week, I met with a job candidate. I was toward the end of her schedule on day two, and I imagined that my colleagues had asked her similar questions. So I automatically said something like, “I’m sorry that you probably have had to answer these questions already.” And then I realized, actually, I do not need to be sorry about that. It’s my job to evaluate this candidate, and she likely expects to answer some of the same questions in different meetings (in fact, how much harder would interviews be if each half hour meeting contained completely new questions?).
- If you have wronged someone somehow, be quick to apologize.
- When you didn’t do anything wrong and you don’t want the other person to think you are taking on blame, don’t apologize.
- When you think you are less than your best (or others’ best), try to suppress that feeling and instead be confident.
Follow these guidelines, and when you truly do apologize, it will mean that you are recognizing you are at fault for something, and that apology will not be empty.
“Don’t apologize unless you did something wrong first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on June 7, 2018.”