Pachter's Pointers:
Business Etiquette Tips & Career Suggestions


I’m Sorry, I Can’t Apologize!

A colleague missed an appointment with a vendor. She called the vendor to apologize. Thinking about the conversation later, she realized that she had said “I’m sorry” numerous times. She called me and asked if you can say “I’m sorry” too much.

Surprisingly, I said “Yes.” Since I teach etiquette, I would never tell anyone to be rude. If you trip someone, spill coffee (or anything else) on someone, or inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings, it is appropriate to say “I’m sorry.” If you work in customer service, saying you are sorry may be part of your job description. However, my friend brought up one of several areas where people (often women, but men as well) overuse “I’m sorry,” and, as a result, hurt their professional image.

 Consider the following items, and ask yourself if you do any of these:

1. Repeat “I’m sorry” numerous times. If you say “I’m sorry,” say it only once. Are you any sorrier the sixth time than you were the first time? Of course not. A long time ago, I was a “serial apologizer.” I would repeat “I’m sorry” so often that my friends joked that on my gravestone they would put, “I’m sorry, I can’t apologize.”

2. Put yourself down. Using such phrases as “I’m sorry to bother you” or “I’m sorry to disturb you” can draw into question your self-esteem. Why are you a “bother”? Your work is valuable, also. Instead of apologizing, you can say assertively, “Excuse me. Do you have a minute?”

3. Take responsibility for something that isn’t your fault. If you say “I’m sorry,” you are implying that you are the one to blame. A man returned from lunch and said, “It’s raining outside.” His colleague responded, “I’m sorry,” as if the rain were her responsibility. If she wanted to say something, she could have made a neutral comment, such as “I hear the rain will continue all day.” In other situations, you can explain. Instead of “I’m sorry I missed the meeting,” one manager said, “I had every intention of joining you, but my day took a different turn.” She then explained that she had been involved in a minor car accident. (Note that this was not a fabricated excuse, but the actual reason she had missed the meeting.)

4. Say “I’m sorry” when it is your fault. This occurs when you have done something that you shouldn’t have done, such as giving out the wrong information. Many of my seminar participants struggle with this issue. Some believe that saying “I’m sorry” is the polite thing to do. Others believe that you need only acknowledge the mistake, and that it is not necessary to apologize. (Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the lead character of the TV show NCIS, has a series of rules to live by, one of which is “Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness.” )

One CEO told me that when his employees say “I’m sorry,” he thinks they are asking him for forgiveness. He would much rather they admit the problem and tell him how they plan to fix it. Consider these two responses: “I’m so sorry I messed up,” or “You are correct. There were mistakes made. It won’t happen again.” I believe the second choice is more powerful.

I’m sorry (no, I’m not!) if you don’t like either of those choices. There is a third alternative. According to author Rachel Vincent: “Chocolate says ‘I’m sorry’ so much better than words.”

Additional tips on communication and word choice can be found in my book, The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat, and Tweet Your Way to Success.

Pachter & Associates offers seminars and coaching on communication skills. Contact Joyce Hoff at 856.751.6141 or


  1. Anonymous8/20/2012

    From A Reader:
    I know myself well enough to say, yes, I say "I'm sorry" too much. I know it is a bad habit that I need to stop.

  2. Anonymous8/21/2012

    From A Reader:
    I have been diminishing the use of "I'm sorry" or a form of it. After all of these years, I realized that it stemmed from courtesy. The way I was brought up, beginning with a somewhat apologetic phrases was a sign of humility and respect for that person...their convenience, before mine. I understand that you are speaking of actually being at fault and apologizing numerous times; that is annoying. Great topic.

  3. Anonymous8/21/2012

    From A Reader:
    Hi Barbara. I think it depends on the company culture. Some companies have a blame culture. Saying you apologise but it was your fault sends a wave causing total incomprehension though out the room. There is a story about a large outsourcing company where they randomly blame people but never tell them. This person has absolutely nothing to do with the problem but an individual has been identified. One day that individual meets a customer who experienced the problem.

  4. Anonymous8/21/2012

    From a Reader:
    Barbara, thank you for raising this topic, which is one of my hot-button issues! I enjoyed your article, but am afraid we might not be on exactly the same page on our viewpoints.

    I agree that there are some people – and I feel they are in the vast minority -- who might overuse the words "sorry" or "apologize," and they should reevaluate the frequency and circumstances of their usage. However, the opposite has been my experience, i.e., those who cannot admit their errors or bring themselves to apologize for their mistakes or behavior. Saying, "I apologize," or "I'm sorry" are phrases we learn as children along with "please" and "thank you," and drop somewhere around the age of 12 never again to use them properly or frequently enough.

    But, here's where I see the real problem with this issue: the words, "sorry" and "apologize," are two of those word pairs that people often misunderstand and confuse.

    While you can certainly use the word, "sorry," in an apology, the word may also be used to express regret over a situation -- as opposed to something you've done or omitted -- or sympathy or pity for someone's plight.

    For example, you can be sorry to leave one's colleagues to finish a task because you've been called away on an emergency business trip; it's not your fault, but there's nothing wrong or weak about saying, "sorry to leave you in the lurch on this project, everyone," which demonstrates your regret that you cannot stay to help them and exhibits empathy--something people are saying that there's a great lack of these days.

    As to the man in your article who came back from lunch and announced that it was raining, his colleague could merely have been sympathizing or commenting that she was genuinely sorry (i.e., regretted) that it was raining! Did the man really believe she was apologizing for the rain? If so, perhaps his perception was off.

    Further, the tone of voice and facial expression used when saying, "I'm sorry," can alter the meaning, e.g., a questioning tone or expression, smile, grimace, raised eyebrow, frown, cocked head, etc., can all help to explain the intention behind the words, "I'm sorry."

    On the other hand, the word, "apologize," clearly means that you are acknowledging a mistake or misstep on your part, and there is nothing wrong with using this word whenever necessary.

    Rather than being a sign of weakness, apologizing is a sign of character and confidence in admitting to making an error and attempting to make amends. But, yet there are so many people who cannot bring themselves to say, “I apologize,” to someone for their mistake or behavior, or "I'm so sorry," as an expression of regret over something they have done. And, I’ve heard many times the absurd statement of, “Never apologize, it's a sign of weakness,” which is an approach that only serves to brand a person as arrogant, illogical, intimidating and untrustworthy.

    Thus, to my mind, it is not those who use the word, "sorry," who are the problem; it is those who do not, as well as those who misunderstand the definitions of the word, and fail to realize that well-bred and / or educated individuals will use the word, "sorry," on various occasions that do not necessarily indicate an apology

  5. Anonymous8/21/2012

    From A Reader:
    I think there are too few people in this world who will admit to mistakes. I think "I'm sorry" can also be misinterpreted. Rather than "Sorry to bother you," I always ask, "Is this a good time?" It's just good courtesy. thanks, Barbara for sharing this and bringing up an important issue.

  6. Anonymous8/21/2012

    From A Reader:
    I agree, there is a difference between apologizing and saying you're sorry; empathy plays a key role. In my customer service training, I emphasize the value and difference between apologizing and empathizing, and because there are those companies who do not want their employees to apologize as "it assumes responsibility", I also discuss the "Thank you for bringing this to my attention" approach". Here, the apology is implied, while .... while forward motion can begin, all in one step -- " that I am aware of this issue, I can ... ". All can work, depending on the situation, but they do take practice.

  7. Anonymous8/21/2012

    From A Reader:
    Another good phrase to use is, "I'm not ready to apologize." It signals that you're not convinced that you understand why you need to apologize. Or that you're not ready to apologize because the facts aren't all in yet.

  8. Anonymous8/21/2012

    From A Reader:
    It's never enough to say just, "I'm sorry." It's important to own up to why you're sorry. For instance, "I'm sorry I missed our appointment, I double booked myself." No reason to over- apologize or over-explain because then you can sound insincere. Giving a simple reason, such as, "I completely forgot," is more honest. The more complicated the excuse, the less credible it sounds.

  9. Anonymous8/21/2012

    From A Reader:
    There should be a balance. We should keep in mind how we use "sorry" and "apologize." We shouldn't overuse or underuse them. The danger in bringing this to one's attention is that he or she might swing to the other extreme. Moderation is the key.

  10. Anonymous8/21/2012

    From A Reader:
    If we can substitute other words and phrases for "sorry," that might resolve the problem that Barbara's article raises. I use, "excuse me for interrupting..."

  11. Anonymous8/21/2012

    From A Reader:
    There are many variables within this topic. Certainly, in doing business one must be careful to choose the right words. But the empathy factor is key. Occasionally I would receive a call from an irate customer who had been transferred to me by the company operator when it wasn't clear where to direct the call. I always said to the customer, with regard to the delay in getting him/her to the proper party, "I'm sorry for inconvenience you are experiencing and will try to get you as quickly as possible to the proper person who can help you." After placing the customer on hold I would find the proper person and switch her / him over. Or I would take the customer's number (after allowing him/her to vent for a minute or so), and follow up with the company contact to ensure that the call was returned. As I believe we agree, the word "sorry" in this instance is showing empathy.

    With regard to saying, "I apologize," I've made more than a few calls to the customer service areas of companies and no one has had a problem with saying, "I apologize." They say it often, so I'm assuming that's the way they were trained. I've never taken it as an admission of guilt or responsibility, but rather as a courtesy. I don't think a customer service representative saying, "I apologize," would hold up in a court of law, but it will go a long way to calm a caller, providing it is not used in place of solving the problem!

  12. Anonymous8/21/2012

    From A Reader:
    This is a great article and it is always important to remember the cultural context as well. In some cultures, saying "I am sorry" it means you are taking responsibility for what it was done and being accountable for it, when in other cultures saying "I am sorry" can really just mean that the person is taking ownership to protect the relationship.
    In the service industry it is expected that companies take ownership of the problems, and then act on resolving it. Context is very important, as usual.

  13. Anonymous8/21/2012

    From A Reader:
    As always, a very poignant posting. The subject as to whether or not a woman should ever use the words "I'm sorry" at work has een bothering me lately. I like your particular take on the use of 'I'm sorry' at work.

  14. Anonymous6/21/2013

    I'm still puzzled about this:
    "On behalf of ......I would apologise for the sense of grievance you feel as a result of your view that the matter could have been handled better."
    Is this an apology or an expression of regret?


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