Sorry, Not Sorry

How many times a day do you say sorry?

Whilst the exact number might not instantly spring to your mind, thankfully someone else has done some research for us. A 2011 survey of over 1,000 Brits found that many of us say ‘sorry’ up to 8 times a day, which equates to 2,920 times a year and 233,600 times in the average lifetime. 12% of those surveyed said the s-word more than 20 times a day.

That’s a whole lot of sorry.

It’s entirely possible that we’re all simply messing up all the time. Or, as I suspect, some of us are apologising a little too often. I’m not talking about genuine, heartfelt apologies when someone’s been wronged. Or even the small ones we offer up to help make amends for doing something a bit rubbish. Those guys can go forth and multiply, as far as I’m concerned.

Nope, I’m talking about the over-apologies. The ones that seem to slip out of our mouths before our poor brains have had a chance to get involved in the action. The ones that happen even when we know we’ve done nothing wrong.

Let me give you an example from my own personal back-catalogue of over-apologies:

I once apologised to a dog. (Incidentally, I also once apologised to a donkey, but that was the least I could do. I’d accidentally kicked it in the face. I unashamedly continue to be sorry for this.)

“Why are you apologising?”

But what about in the case of the dog, Archie? What was my crime? I’d dropped a pen. On a soft carpet. With the lid on. On the other side of the room. Noiselessly.

I think it’s fairly safe to say, an apology wasn’t necessary. To anyone. And Archie’s doleful, wide-eyed expression told me as much.

I’m not alone. 43% of people in the survey above apologised when someone else bumped into them. 17% apologised when someone trod on their toes. Today I’ve counted 10 ‘sorry’s leaping out of my mouth, and I stopped counting at lunchtime.

So some of us really are leaking ‘sorry’s all over the place as we go about our daily business. But what’s the problem? It’s just over-politeness, isn’t it? No harm done.

I’m afraid it’s a whole lot more complex than that.

A Sorry State of Affairs

A bit like cholesterol, apologies come in 2 types – the goodies and the baddies. There are a whole host of characteristics of an apology that can make it fall into one camp or the other – things like how much the person accepts responsibility, the timing, and even tone of voice. A crucial characteristic is whether the situation warrants an apology. If not, it’s an over-apology – and it could be a baddy.

Over-apologising in certain situations can have a positive effect on how others perceive you. The over-apology is used (consciously or otherwise) by many people to build rapport with others.

For example, a 2013 study by researchers at Harvard Business School and University of Pennsylvania found evidence that over-apologies can cause others to perceive you as more trustworthy.

“I’m sorry about the rain!”

In one experiment, an actor approached 65 strangers at a train station on a rainy day and asked to borrow their mobile phone.

For half of them, he preceded his request with the unnecessary apology: “I’m sorry about the rain!”. For the other half, he came straight out with his request: “Can I borrow your cell phone?”.

The apology made a big difference. 47% of strangers offered their phone when the actor apologised for the rain first, compared with just 9% when there was no apology. Even though the situation did not warrant an apology – after all, he wasn’t responsible for the rain!

The use of over-apologies to build rapport is a common linguistic style. It focusses on building rapport by placing the speaker in a ‘one-down’ position relative to the audience. Similar styles include using self-deprecation or using ‘double voicing’ (qualification of one’s own comments or questions). They are non-threatening to others, and can help to build trust. They can be very useful to smooth political tensions in the office, or prevent someone from being intimidated.

But there are two key problems when using it:

  • When this useful linguistic style turns into an automatic habit. When you apologise unnecessarily regardless of audience or situation. No feathers need de-ruffling, and no one needs reassuring that you’re not intimidating. You just can’t help it.
  • When the audience doesn’t share your understanding about how the apology is being used. When others don’t interpret your apology as diplomatic deference, or as you supportively calming someone who may be threatened by you. Because they have a linguistic style of their own which doesn’t tally with yours.

In these situations, people can interpret these over-apologies as weakness, lack of confidence, and even actual blameworthiness.

How to Negotiate the Over-Apology Minefield

Whilst some over-apologies are pretty harmless, others can become a bit tricksy. Particularly because research shows the most likely inappropriate ‘sorry’ scenario is in the workplace. And we all know that, at work, it matters how people perceive you.

You can’t control what others think (no one can, that would be creepy). But you can do your best to fairly represent yourself.

  • Be aware that others can misinterpret you, and listen out for what slips out of your mouth when your brain isn’t watching. This self-awareness is the first step to ditching an over-apology habit.
  • Be deliberate about using over-apologies. Want to help someone feel non-threatened? Go for it. Want to simply say what you mean? Leave it out. Get the best out of this linguistic style by consciously choosing when, and when not, to use it.
  • Be true to yourself. It’s easy to feel as though you ought to doubt yourself. Perhaps because of your age, gender or experience. But if you think you’re on the money, you might be better off just saying so.

Turns out that ‘sorry’ is a powerful word.

Use it responsibly.

Links and further reading:

  • Sorry, Not Sorry: The original inspiration for this post – the Pantene advert which got my brain buzzing at about 6.30am about the use of apologies.
  • The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why – Deborah Tannen 1995: A brilliant article which, though fairly old now, illustrates the concept of linguistic styles, and how problems can occur when we assume others operate with, or understand, the same styles we do.
  • On Apology – Aaron Lazare: An amazingly comprehensive analysis of the apology, and how best to use it.

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