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 firstname.lastname@example.org.