Sorry, but we’re apologizing too much

Step on somebody’s toes? By all means, say you’re sorry. But are we expressing regret too often for minor transgressions?

Stop apologizing so much

A fellow member of my Toastmaster’s club—a former lawyer who is now an acupuncturist—once gave a speech about how she came to realize that she was apologizing too often.

Every time an appointment ran over, Lynn opened her next one by saying, “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

So she began using an alternative. Nowadays when she runs late, she says, “Thank you for your patience.”

Sorry to be the one to raise the issue, but aren’t we overdoing the S-word in an era in which every third email seems to include a bit of preemptive groveling, and every day brings another basketful of corporate apologies?

Sorry I didn’t respond to your morning email until after lunch. Sorry I forgot to bring paper plates for these cupcakes I baked for the team. Sorry I kept you on hold when you called me out of the blue.

Sorry you misread the font on our tote bag and seriously thought it said, “My favorite color is Hitler.” (You mean it’s not everybody’s?) Sorry our company was the victim of an email hack by a wacko communist regime ruled by a dead man.

This is not to say there isn’t a role for apologies, individual and corporate. If you hurt someone’s feelings or that campaign blows up in your face, a personal apology, tweet or email is cheap and will assuage hurt feelings.

Still, perhaps it’s time to rethink apologies in these situations:

Minor tardiness

If you blow off a meeting or keep someone waiting for an hour, then by all means, apologize profusely. Groveling when you’re five minutes late, however, just might make the situation worse.

My friend Lynn said her phrase, “Thank you for your patience,” created a whole new dynamic among those waiting for her.

A thank-you places the focus on the waiting person’s virtue (patience), rather than the late person’s transgression (tardiness). I have tried it, and it works.

Inevitable awkwardness in phone conversations

Before hearing Lynn’s speech, I used to apologize unthinkingly to sources every time I merged smartphone calls with a recording app—which meant every single interview. (“Sorry, I’m going to have to put you on hold.”) Now I explain in advance why the line will briefly go dead, and then thank them for their patience when we reconnect. It’s a much better start to an interview.

Worse yet, I had a habit of saying, “Sorry, I’d like to record this call.” Why sorry? Doesn’t everybody want to be quoted correctly? Now I say, “If you don’t mind, I’m going to record this call for accuracy’s sake.”

Emails

My former colleague Jessica Levco once noticed her own and other people’s habit of overdoing thank-yous in emails. Searching my own inbox, I find that I and many others have a similar tendency to apologize gratuitously.

Sorry, I was on lunch break when you called.  Sorry for the delay in sending you documents you didn’t even know were coming. Sorry to follow up with a second email after you, our paid consultant, didn’t answer the first one.

Apology-threats and other non-expressions of regret

“I’m sorry, Vyacheslav, but you’d better finish that report by Wednesday, or heads will roll.”

“Sorry, Trixie, but I couldn’t be less interested in that Justin Bieber song.”

“Sorry, Russell, but this story of yours is pure gobbledygook.”

You get the idea.

Speaker apologies

Public speaking is a challenge for many of us, and perhaps that’s why those who don’t do it every day often reflexively fall back on apologies. Yet, it gets old watching innumerable conference speakers express regret for (of all things) the hour they are speaking—any hour.

I often hear speakers imply that the audience is being put upon because they have to listen to a talk first thing in the morning (“Sorry it’s so early, guys), right before lunch (“Sorry, I know we’re all hungry”), right after lunch (“Sorry, I know we’d rather crawl off and take a nap somewhere”), mid-afternoon (ditto), or right before happy hour (“Sorry, I know we all can’t wait to get to the cocktails”).

Just assume that if your audience has shown up, it’s because they want to hear you.

Dinner

My mom used to say never apologize, even implicitly, for a meal you serve to guests. They will never notice its flaws if you don’t announce:

  • “Oh, I’m afraid I undercooked the pork,” or:
  • “Sorry, baked beans usually don’t come out black and smoking.”

When I was a fourth-grader, Mom assigned me to make a Jell-O instant chocolate pudding from a box for an important dinner we were hosting for visiting missionaries. She and I set out the cut-glass desert bowls before every guest. Everyone around the great table spooned into his or her gullet a dollop of the festive glop the color of substances we scrape from our shoes in the yard. We all simultaneously realized one thing: The cook had left out the sugar.

Quick on her feet, Mom found a way to avoid an apology. She said brightly, “Russell made the dessert!”

Feeling my face grow hot, I said, “I’m sorry!”

Every rule has its exceptions.

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