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 to ask 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 touched on 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 points, 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 bring 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 strongly that saying “I’m sorry” is the polite thing to do. I like the way my husband, the lawyer, defends this stance. He believes that if you cause someone “adverse consequences,” you should say “I’m sorry.”

Others believe strongly that you need only acknowledge the mistake, and that it is not necessary to apologize. (Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the lead character of the popular 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 right. I made a mistake. It won’t happen again.” (Additional tips on word choice can be found in my book, The Communication Clinic: 99 Proven Cures for the Most Common Business Mistakes.)     

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

I post regularly on communication and etiquette. We can connect via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or my

About: Barbara Pachter is an internationally-renowned business etiquette and communications speaker, coach and author of 11 business books. She helps individuals communicate more effectively and enhance their professional presence. Pachter is also adjunct faculty in the School of Business at Rutgers University. ( 


  1. Wow, I feel for you. y guess is that he has been reacting this way a long time, and you are trying to get blood from a stone. Carolyn's advice about the gaslighting seems about right. I just had something similar happen on vacation with my sister's family, except it was with a physical hurt, rather than emotional, so more cut-and-dried. My brother-in-law and his boy were playing catch on the beach, near the BIL's friend and me seated. He kept throwing closer while behind us, my nephew catching. I got beaned in the head shortly thereafter, and it was a throw that had to be almost exact. BIL is not Tom Brady, but there is no chance he wasn't trying to hit his friend, and I got hit instead. My BIL has impulse control, ADHD issues, so this wasn't out of the blue at all. He thinks things are going to be funny. The weird thing was, not one of them apologized, asked if I was okay. My teenage nephew, who was not near enough to have caught it, normally isn't like that at all, he is thoughtful and sensitive. His dad, another story. I left the beach upset about the non-apology, and more upset because if I was going to get one, it was going to be by demand. I got back and my sister had no sympathy for me, saying he never apologizes, he refuses to. So now I am not going on vacation with them again, and I have renewed concern for my sister, because in the past he has engaged in gaslighting. She has gained a LOT of weight in the past year, and I feel that she has finally given up, and is using that weight in a way to get him to leave her, if that makes sense. I don't think she is in physical harm's way, nor do I think I was, but who doesn't apologize and make sure someone's okay when they do something to injure them?
    Callie Lorenzo,
    expert writer

  2. Not apologizing fits your view of the world, Barbara Pachter. I read a post where you decided that everyone who attends your events should dress and sit and behave only in ways you approve of. Never mind the details of their lives, what mattered was what you wanted to see. Apologies acknowledge the perspectives of other people. The previous post I read from you proves that you don't care about other people's perspectives. Hint: People with anxiety disorders may feel more comfortable sitting along the sides of the room than at the tables. They may need to know they can leave the room quietly if something triggers their anxiety. They are being considerate of you, in other words. Plus, feeling more comfortable, they would be more likely to hear whatever you are saying in your speech.

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