Sometimes your bad habits don't show up when you look at yourself in the mirror. Often, they show up when you see how they affect others. My habit of saying "I'm sorry" manifested itself through my daughters, who routinely apologize for practically everything.
I am outspoken in my support of women and women's issues and have raised my girls to be as well. I am not ashamed to call myself a feminist and have done so for as long as I've known what the word means. So imagine my horror and frustration when my daughters began apologizing constantly starting around 10 or 11 years old.
At first, I tried gentle reminders. Then I yelled. Then I rolled my eyes and I might have even thrown something once or twice (not AT them).
Then, I began to notice that most of the women I know apologize far more than they should. Then, I finally realized that I was doing it, too.
Useful alternatives to "I'm sorry"
One of my favorite actresses is Jessica Chastain. I love her advice in this video about over-apologizing. Basically, it boils down to (1) apologize if you are truly at fault and have something to take responsibility for and (2) otherwise, sit in silence for a three-count to gather your thoughts and center yourself.
When it comes down to it, for many of us "I'm sorry" is meaningless verbal diarrhea. It's what we say as an all-purpose response or in place of other, perfectly serviceable phrases. It's how we fill dead air, make the peace, end the argument and so on (and so on and so on).
If you find yourself saying "I'm sorry" all the time, here are some alternative phrases that you can use to communicate without sounding like you're guilty of something.
Many women say "I'm sorry" when joining into (or interrupting) a conversation that's already in progress. Instead, say "Excuse me".
I'd like to add.../Let me piggyback on that...
When you're in a meeting and you have a contribution, don't act like you're interrupting the discussion at hand. After all, you're in the meeting. You're supposed to contribute. Instead, either make your point as part of the flow of conversation or use one of these common introductory phrases.
If you start to talk at the same time as a colleague, instead of saying "I'm sorry" simply say, "Let me jump in here" or "One moment" and continue with your thought. If the person is senior to you and you need to defer to them, you can say "You first" or "Go ahead."
Pardon me/I beg your pardon
This is a perfectly polite way to interrupt or even to excuse yourself if needed without the mea culpa suggestion of blame that accompanies "I'm sorry." This is fairly formal, which can be a good thing in situations where you want to be polite but don't want to apologize.
Oh dear! Oh no! How awful! How frustrating!
Often we say "I'm sorry" as a way of showing sympathy or empathy when something has happened. Instead, try one of these phrases which convey your feelings without the suggestion that you are somehow responsible.
"How frustrating" is particularly effective as a way to mirror back the speaker's feelings to them and give them an opening to talk further if needed.
Thank you for...
I stole this from one of my favorite clients (Hey, Carrie!) and it is great advice. Instead of apologizing for something, thank the other person for their response. For example, if you start a meeting late, don't say "I'm sorry I'm late." Say, "Thank you for your patience."
You were probably late because you were doing some other aspect of your job. That's nothing to be sorry for. Turn the negative into a positive and a chance to acknowledge others with this technique.
I hear you. Here's my perspective.
Women are frequently conditioned to see disagreement as combat and to apologize if they can't align with the other party. In addition, because they frequently defer to others, their partners in conversation may feel that they just have to keep reiterating their point to "win" the argument.
It can be helpful to say, "I hear you" or "I understand" or even "I acknowledge that that is your perspective" in order to reassure the other speaker that you know where they are coming from. Then share your own reasoning and perspective without apology.
We'll have to agree to disagree.
Similarly, you may feel that there must be a resolution to every disagreement. In fact, however, well-meaning people can, in all fairness and good faith, hold differing points of view -- and you don't have to come to any sort of meeting of the minds. Sometimes, agreeing to disagree, then moving on, makes sense.
Let me reiterate: You don't have to say "I'm sorry" and acquiesce to another in order for the disagreement to be over. You don't have to take the blame in order to make someone else feel better. You don't have to be the one who gives in.
As J. Chastain said, silence is often the best alternative. This is especially true for people who use sorry as a placeholder, similar to "uh" or "um". Train yourself to get comfortable with silence, especially during a discussion or disagreement.
One powerful way to use silence is along with repetition. As a teacher, I frequently had students come in and make excuses along the lines of "my dog ate my homework." Since my policy was not to accept late work, I would say, "My policy is No Late Work on long-term projects." Then I would sit in silence.
Inevitably, the student would start again with excuses or reasons. I would repeat, "My policy is No Late Work on long-term projects." Silence.
Understand, this can be accompanied by sympathetic looks and hand gestures. It can be said in a tone of great regret. It doesn't have to be mean or cold. It just is what it is. That's the policy. There's nothing else to be said, really.
5 other ways women undermine themselves through verbal habits
While "I'm sorry" is probably the most prominent, it's not the only way that women give away their power through poor communication. Here are some other habits that I strive to avoid.
This is one that I fight all of the time in my written communication. Here's the scenario:
Someone hires me to do some writing -- a property description or bio, for instance. I do so, send a draft, use their response to revise as needed then send a final copy. Subsequently, I send an invoice for the work that has been completed.
It then becomes my job to reach out day after day in order to ask about the payment that's due. If I start that email "Just checking in to see" or "Just wondered if" it sounds dismissive. It sounds like the payment I'm due for the work I've done is unimportant or somehow diminished.
Instead, I say, "Checking in to ensure you have received your invoice. I've attached another copy for your records to this email. Please let me know when it has been processed." Or something to that effect.
That gets a response 99 times out of 100. It is polite and professional but it's also perfectly serious.
I don't use "just" as an adverb in any context. If I'm pitching to a publication, for example, I tell them what I'm offering rather than saying "I'm just reaching out...." I don't "just wonder," "just ask," or "just do" anything. Neither should you.
D'you know what I mean? D'you know what I'm saying?
I think it's perfectly fine to ensure that the person you're speaking to is following you. However, many women use "Do you know what I mean?" or some version of it as a verbal filler. It makes them sound hesitant and unsure about whether they are communicating or even if they know what they're talking about in the first place.
If you think the person you're talking to isn't following your logic, stop and ask
"Do you have any questions?"
"Did you need me to go back over that?"
"Should I repeat that?"
"Alright so far?"
It's not my fault.
As much as possible, I try to practice radical accountability. While I don't make a martyr of myself, I do try to see my own responsibility in my circumstances and address what I need to improve rather than looking for ways to blame someone else.
Sometimes you're not at fault. Sometimes, someone else screwed up. Too bad. It doesn't change the immediate circumstances.
Instead of looking around and trying to place the blame where it belongs, talk about what you're doing to right the ship. Be solution-oriented and decisive. Speak with confidence and clarity so that you become the hero. This will usually ensure that the blame ends up in the right place.
If you truly find yourself in a position where you are being accused of something that you didn't do or where you do need to clarify the person at fault, do so without whining and without apologizing. Be clear and concise and don't make excuses.
I'm not ready.
In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg talks about how women undermine themselves and their professional trajectory by turning down great opportunities because they don't feel that they are 100% prepared. Meanwhile, male colleagues say Yes to opportunities, reasoning that they can get up to speed as they move through the project.
If you need help, ask for it. If you need training, get it. If your boss, broker, or mentor offers you an opportunity, it's because they think you're ready for it. Don't throw that trust and confidence back in their face. Say Yes and figure out the details later.
I know, I know, I said that Silence Is Golden when it comes to unnecessary apologies. However, it can undermine you when applied at the wrong time.
There are things worth speaking up for. There are wrongs that should be righted. There are problems that need to be solved. There are people who need support. There are people who needed to be called out on their bullshit. There are people running their mouths who need to be shut down.
You have a voice for a reason. Use it when you need to and don't be afraid. Speak up and stand in your power.
And when you do, whatever you do, don't apologize.
Make this your new theme song for 2022 and empower yourself through the power of your communication.