Early one morning, Peg popped her head into her boss’ office and said, “Sorry, Bill. Do you have a minute?” In a late-morning project meeting, she said, “I’m sorry, but can I ask a question?” Riding the elevator to go out for lunch, Peg was jostled by another rider. “Sorry,” she said reflexively.  And on the last call of the day, something the other person said was garbled. To prompt the speaker to repeat himself, she said… you guessed it… “Sorry?”

Women rightly chafe against being treated as “less than” in the workplace. But we actually participate in that treatment through our own “sorry-itis” – a condition affecting mostly women, in which we apologize to others for absolutely nothing.

Like you, I respect leaders who admit to their mistakes and who own up to the consequences. But sorry-itis is a whole different thing.  In all four examples above, Peg committed no transgression. Essentially, she manufactured needless blame and stuck it to own forehead.  So the only harm done was to Peg herself. Though each of her “sorries” was a casual utterance and no big deal, together, they formed a speech pattern that communicated that Peg is a walking mistake. Every unwarranted “sorry” taught others to devalue her.

When Peg became aware of the extent and impact of her sorry-itis, she wanted to heal it. But she was afraid that she might start sounding like a jerk. So what were her alternatives in the four situations?

  • Popping her head into Bill’s office, she could merely say, “Excuse me, Bill. We don’t have an appointment right now, but do you have a few minutes to go over X?” And if Bill says, no, she can counter with “No problem. What would be a better time?”
  • She had every right to ask a question in a meeting. A more self-respectful way to do it might have been “Before we move on, I’d like to get more clarification on Y.”
  • In the elevator… Just zip it, Peg. The jostler owes the apology here, not the jostle-ee.
  • If she didn’t understand or hear something, she could have simply said “Would you say that again?”

What about you?

For the next week, keep a running log of the situations where you said “I’m sorry.”

At the end of the week, review the log.  What percentage of the time were your “sorries” the warranted acknowledgment of harm or injury?  What percentage of your “sorries” were due to sorry-itis?

When your sorries were unwarranted, what message do you think they sent to others:
– about how you regard yourself?
– about how others should regard you?

If you had one of those situations to do over again, how could you communicate in a way that was both graceful and self-respectful?