The “Sorry” Plague — 5 Reasons Women Need to Stop Apologizing in the Workplace


It’s a regular joke that my middle name is “Sorry.” For the majority of my life, I’ve been notorious for overusing this phrase. It isn’t easy to overcome something that’s so ingrained in your being. I have to constantly remind myself that most of what I am apologizing for is not actually my fault, nor does it necessitate an apology in the first place. This is not just an obstacle I need to overcome; it is a burden many women feel on a daily basis. Since I’m an advocate of lists, I’ve narrowed this down to five reasons to stop making this word the plague of your workplace vocabulary.

An animated GIF on why women should not say

1. Sets you up for failure

By saying you’re sorry, you’re unintentionally brainwashing your mind to believe that you have failed in some way. In the workplace, this headspace can cloud your judgment and even sabotage your reputation. In more than a decade of professional experience, I have witnessed firsthand that this seemingly innocent behavior has the tendency to set off a domino effect. It starts as an occasional occurrence, which soon becomes a bad habit. Once this happens, coworkers and superiors start seeing that you, in fact, perceive yourself as a failure and therefore lack the confidence to advance, or even succeed, in the workplace.

2. Operates as conversation filler

Initially, the video above was very amusing to me. But after watching it repeatedly, I realized it’s not much of an exaggeration. Too often I hear women saying “sorry” or other filler words such as “like,” “just,” or “um.” I have found that the general perception around the overuse of filler words is that you either lack the vocabulary (read: intelligence) to use the appropriate words, or that you have social anxiety and lack confidence. Rather than relying on fluff and creating that false perception, try to embrace the silence and take the opportunity to process your next vocal contribution.

3. Raises questions surrounding abilities

When you apologize, you’re communicating that you’ve made a mistake. For example, if you say you’re sorry every hour, you’re conveying that you are making mistakes hourly. This could raise the question of whether or not you can do your job effectively in the eyes of management. As women, it is crucial that we not only keep our jobs, but that we also continue to advance in our careers. This may not happen if we falsely communicate that we’re incompetent to management. According to The New York Times, “Women make up more than half of the work force, but they still represent less than 5 percent of the chief executives of the largest companies, and about 15 percent of senior executives.”

A pictographic representation of the percentage of women in workforce, women as chief executives, and as senior executives.

4. Reinforces gender inequality issues

The April 2015 Council of Economic Advisers’ Issue Brief states: “In 2013, the median woman working full time all year earned 78 percent of what the median man working full time all year earned. Phrased differently, she earned 78 cents for every dollar he did.” Clearly there is an imbalance here, and it would be naive to say the sole solution lies in changing women’s behavior and self-perception. In order for the gender gap to change, men must also take action by becoming more aware of biases that affect the way they view women. The reason many of us apologize so often may be that we’ve been made to feel as if our opinions aren’t valued. That being said, if we don’t view ourselves positively, then this self-deprecating disposition may contribute to negative outcomes — such as not asking for a high salary upon hiring or accepting less-than-adequate raises.

5. Yields lower self-esteem

Again, apologizing communicates incompetency. If you feel incompetent, you lack self-esteem. Low self-esteem is a serious issue that many women struggle with every day. This feeling can lead to self-destructive behavior, not only in a professional sense, but also in a personal one. It’s very likely that if you exude low self-esteem in the workplace, you have low self-esteem at home. That can mean a lack of friends, hobbies, and the general ability to enjoy yourself outside of work.

Steps to ACTION

1. Log — Using a spreadsheet tool, keep a log of every time you say “Sorry.” Do this for three to seven days. Make three columns called “Context,” “Day/Time,” and “Who.” An example would be a dropped call during a conversation with your friend Jenn, after which you call back and apologize for the disconnection. In this example, you would write “lost phone connection” in the Context cell, “Sun. 1:30 p.m.” in the Day/Time cell, and “Jenn” in the Who cell.

Monitor and log how many times you say sorry to pinpoint the why and address it.

2. Process — Process all of the data you collected and see if there are any consistencies within your entries. You may find that you’re more likely to apologize in the morning on a workday rather than in the afternoon. You may also find that you tend to apologize more to a particular person in your life. Reflect on these findings. Let them soak in.

3. Act — Now that you have more context surrounding your behavior, it’s time to take action. This is not easy and will take time. Being cognizant of your behavior is the biggest hurdle to overcome. Utilize your loved ones (whether it’s family, friends, neighbors, or even your local barista) to help you limit filler in your vocabulary. Ask them to remind you if you start to over-apologize in front of them. Another way is to use technology to remind you. Just Not Sorry is a Chrome plugin for Gmail that will warn you when you use words or phrases that undermine your message.

Put a stop to your

Of course it’s OK to apologize sometimes. In fact, I believe the general public doesn’t do it enough. It’s a sign of humility, and can be a positive word when used appropriately. That being said, we also need to think about why we’re apologizing. If it’s because we have actually made a mistake or wronged someone, then it has merit. If not, don’t say it. Instead, say to yourself, “Sorry, NOT SORRY!” I have faith that if all women start to take action to limit this behavior, they will grow and be stronger because of it.

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