Sorry is the hardest word…
I’m really sorry I haven’t been in touch in a while. I know you’re super-busy, and I’m sorry if this isn’t a good time – so I’ll keep this brief. And sorry too for cluttering your inbox, I know you get a lot of mail…
Sound familiar? Take a look through your own sent box and note how many emails begin with some kind of apology. In the media there’s been a veritable frenzy of commentary about women’s tendency to apologize excessively. Do we do it? Why? What are we so sorry about, anyway?
Over the last month, I’ve worked with groups of women in a range of contexts: I spoke at the recent HRPA conference to a group of close to 200 women, ran an event for women in HR and Diversity, and last week led a session on difficult conversations. I was also invited to a brainstorming meeting for the Best Person Project, a program designed to help young women launch their careers with confidence. Amazingly, the subject of apologies came up at each of these events.
Sorry or not?
In most of these contexts, we were exploring the personal leadership presence that can allow women to be truly seen and heard at work. I heard so many women identify a tendency to apologize when there’s actually nothing to be sorry about. I heard some women apologize, then apologize for apologizing. Many felt baffled and slightly sheepish about these conversation ‘minimizers.’ They wondered ‘why am I apologizing when I’m not even sorry?” This question was often followed by, “ok then, should I give up apologizing altogether? What if I need to take responsibility for something?” The answer is: well, it’s complicated.
Technology has stepped in to address the “problem.” The Just Not Sorry app extension on Google Chrome highlights keywords and phrases in your emails that unintentionally undermine your message. I’ve heard from some women who’ve tried the tool that it’s helpful in avoiding the tendency to undermine their own authority. Others described the app as another annoying gimmick aimed at “fixing women” – like a kind of linguistic airbrushing.
Comedian Amy Schumer skewers the female tendency to apologize in her skit “I’m sorry” in which an innovation panel of female experts apologize for everything from clearing their throats to having their names mispronounced by the host. It’s a cutting commentary, and one comedy site encourages women, “ladies, stop apologizing all the time!” Thanks for the tip.
This advice, while perhaps well intentioned, is something most of us can do without. Like many women, I’m pretty much of done with directives that tell me how “fix” the way I speak. Or dress. Or think. We don’t want to be patronized, but we don’t want to undermine ourselves either.
Smoothing and softening
So why do we do it? Linguist Deborah Tannen suggests that our tendency to apologize is a conversation “smoother,” part of a ritual where women endeavor to restore balance to a conversation. When I misinterpret my client’s directions to their office, I may apologize for being late; she may apologize for being unclear. It’s a ritual agreement to mitigate awkwardness by sharing the blame. As women are typically inclined to prioritize relationship, we tend to engage in this ritual intuitively. If this understanding is shared, all is well.
What I also hear from women (particularly those working in male-dominated organizations) is an explicit understanding of the double bind: women are often seen as either likeable or competent, but usually not both. So ritual “smoothers” – like apologies – appear in their communications and conversations as an unconscious attempt to convey warmth.
Other smoothers include minimizing language, such as:
I’m just writing to ask…
This is only my opinion, but…
I’m actually concerned that…
I’m not an expert but…
Hopefully you’ll see the need…
Does that make sense..?
Women will tell me that when they remove these conversation softeners, they’ve been told that they are aggressive, or difficult to work with. But when they interject apologies and other conversation softeners, they are perceived as weak, and apologies are interpreted literally as accepting blame or fault.
So what to do?
So, how to curb the apology habit?
A few ideas:
- Ask yourself if an apology is called for. Is this a time to take responsibility? Or not?
- Know your audience. If their style is direct and to the point, mirror it.
- Be intentional. If your message needs mollifying, make conscious choices on how to soften it. And if it’s a difficult message, consider whether email is the best medium. (Probably not.)
- Lead with warmth. There are other ways to build rapport and overcome a possible perception of harshness. Begin with positives, use names, make personal connections, try humour.
- Challenge your own assumptions. If you’ve received feedback that your style is too harsh, consider the source and the frequency. Who told you this? How often? Is this feedback worth considering? Or can you take it with a big ol’ grain of salt?
- Proofread your own correspondence – Email is notorious for it’s lack of tone. While in verbal conversation we can convey warmth through body language or voice, that’s all gone in text. Edit for undermining language and substitute personal connections to build relationship.
As in all communication, mindfulness is key. If we are aware of the way our listener prefers to receive information, and our own habits in delivering it, we’re a lot more likely to get our point across.
What do you think? Are you aware of minimizing or softening language? How has it served you?
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Take care, Sarah