Originally published 12/15/17. Updated 1/2/21.
I can’t tell you how it started. I can tell you that once I noticed it, it was everywhere and impossible to ignore.
The overuse of “I’m sorry.”
I was formerly a power-user of the phrase, and I read an article a few years back exploring the folly of its overuse, and it opened my eyes to my own bad habit, which I shared with SO MANY people around me.
Far as I can tell, in my little corner of Western civilization, people apologize way more often than is necessary. I wish I were a cultural psychologist to dissect why people in this millennium are so quick to apologize for unnecessary reasons.
In light of that, I am going to make a stunning recommendation:
Save your apologies for when you actually did something wrong
Growing up, I was taught to apologize when I was in error. Treating someone poorly, lying to my parents, cheating on a test, or otherwise breaking known rules – those were justified occasions to apologize.
These days, I hear people utter “I’m sorry” for the silliest reasons.
When someone asks them a question, as if they should have anticipated it and answered it before it was asked.
“Hey Martha, what did you mean when you said ….”
Martha: “Oh, I’m sorry, I…”
Martha, what are you apologizing for? Because someone needed clarification? Why are you apologizing for that?
When someone enters a conversation after it’s started and didn’t catch all the details.
Late arrival: “Hey guys, how’s it going?”
Person 1: “I was just telling Jim here about how my interview went…”
Late arrival: Oh, I’m sorry!
Why are you apologizing, exactly?
When a boss or co-worker gives you a suggestion.
Boss: You know, Steve, how about using this format for your TPS reports instead of that one. It makes it easier to present to the client.
Steve: Oh, I’m sorry! I’ll do that in the future.
STEVE!! Getting a suggestion for something someone wants you to do differently doesn’t necessarily mean you were doing it wrong. Please, don’t apologize unless you did something wrong.
I could list more examples, but you get the idea.
Apologizing when you are not in the wrong is unnecessary. It makes you come across as weak and lacking confidence. If your goal is to make people lack faith in you and what you can do, by all means, wear out those words.
If you’ve been insensitive, or a downright jerk, broken the law, made a mistake that puts others at a disadvantage, or done something wrong that affects someone else, those are the times to utter a sincere apology at the very least.
After I became aware of the over-apologizing trend, I noticed myself doing it way too often. It also began to bother me when I heard others do it. I had to re-train my brain to stop and think of other things to say when my knee-jerk reaction was to apologize.
Some alternate phrases to unnecessary apologies:
“Oh, I see what you mean.”
“I didn’t realize that.”
“That is good to know for future reference.”
“Thank you for that suggestion. I will work on that.”
Again, there are more examples I could list. The point of the exercise is to examine the use of unnecessary apologies and modify your behavior as needed.
Are you an over-apologizer? Know one? Regardless, I would love to get your comments on this issue!