Sorry, not sorry: 9 tips for overapologizers

April 26, 2019
  • Communication
  • Competencies
  • Professional Well-Being
cartoon red monster with horns says sorry by Lisa Erck, Associate University Registrar & Law Registrar at the University of the Pacific 

In a Wednesday session at AACRAO 2019, presenter Helena Minerva, Fashion Institute of Technology, SUNY, shared her perspective on why we over-apologize, how it affects us, and ways to change our patterns of behavior. Minerva used humor and science to explain the phenomenon, and how to tame our automatic responses to achieve increased valuable interactions, improve credibility, and earn the respect of others. Minerva is a distinguished and entertaining speaker who engaged a packed room while making connections with the audience members through interactive text polling and audience participation with in depth conversation.

What is an apology?

Minerva shared how she discovered that she used the word "sorry" about thirty times per day prior to researching this topic about two years ago. Her averages is now about ten per day, which she still considers excessive, but is a significant improvement. She described a genuine apology as one that includes a sincere expression of remorse, requires acceptance of responsibility, provides an offer to make amends, and is excuse-free. The benefits of a genuine apology are that it provides empathy, demonstrates strong social skills, can lead to compromise, and brings harmony and unification in relationships. 

She gave the example of when interrupting someone in his or her office; we often use the phrase, “I’m sorry to interrupt.” However, we are not sorry we are intentionally choosing to interact with the person. Thus, there is no need to use the word "sorry" in this context. "Excuse me" may be more appropriate.

She provided a second example, when a person indicates that they are offended, we should not insert the word “if” into the phrase, “I’m sorry if I offended you.” The use of “if” is asking them to question their own system of belief. It is not an “if” if they have already indicated they are offended. It is a fact that the person is offended, and thus avoid the use of the word “if” when apologizing. Minerva stated that the only thing worse than not apologizing is offering a bad apology. 

She cited the 1982 Tylenol cyanide-tampering case as a great example of how to execute a response, as Tylenol crafted an apology to mitigate the consumer impact from the negative publicity and turn it into a positive direction for the company going forward. The response employed the following components for a robust and effective apology; acknowledge the problem, provide a genuine apology, accept full responsibility, express concern, and make certain the problem is never repeated. 

Culture and value systems

Minerva described the roots of the behavior comes from a culture which places value on encouraging everyone to accept shared responsibility and the desire to make everyone happy. This behavior is more pronounced in collective cultures, as they are strongly attuned to seeing things from a community perspective. She used an example of when one child grabs a toy from another child and the other child cries out. The teacher intervenes and tells both children to apologize so that harmony may resume. However, the child who had the toy stolen is taught to apologize even when they had no responsibility for the actions of the other child.

How others see us

There are conflicting messages in society about what behaviors are appropriate. Skills that lead to individualization are assertion, confidence, expressiveness, and commitment to one’s own agenda. However, in many cases, these aspects are viewed differently when the behavior is seen in a boy versus a girl. For example, boys receive praise for being direct and demonstrating confident behavior. On the other hand, girls receive praise for showing confident behavior when focused on others. Personality types and backgrounds play a role in who tends to over-apologize. Those who come from a strict background, those who are highly empathetic, self-critical, compassionate, submissive, or agreeable. These are attempts to be sensitive, avoid conflict, demonstrate benevolence, or to accommodate. 

She showed a Pantene commercial illustrating "Sorry, Not Sorry." It showed people using the word "sorry" when they want to ask a question, as they walked into an office to ask a minute of someone’s time, when another person sat down and moved into their personal space, and when they are making room at the conference table for another person to sit down. Then the same scenarios were repeated without the use of the word sorry. There are appropriate phrases such as, “excuse me, may I have a minute of your time,” “here, let me make room for you at the table,” or “may I ask you a question?” It is possible to still be polite but maintain your personal integrity and value when speaking to others.

Personal implications

Minerva emphasized that "sorry" has negative feelings attached to it. Thus, use of the word in situations that do not warrant it, but are a reflexive use of it can have the following negative consequences:
  • cultivates feelings of guilt,
  • implies you should be sorry,
  • loses meaning with repetitive overuse,  
  • indicates you would rather be agreeable than honest,
  • appears meek or undeserving,
  • justifies the poor actions of others,
  • detracts from the clarity of the message,  
  • makes it appear that the person is dependent on external validation
  • impacts personal relationships by blurring boundaries and putting ownership on others to build the person up and offer validation in return.
Minerva offered the example of apologizing in email for not responding immediately because you were unavailable at the time the email arrived. Apologizing for being occupied by work and for responding at the end of the day, sets the expectation that an immediate response was required and then that becomes the expectation in the future.

Overuse or reflexive use of the word "sorry" on the job downplays authority, gives an appearance of incompetence, compromises professional values, and creates insecurity and self-doubt. She used the example of a student coming to the Registrar’s office after missing the deadline to withdraw. A reflexive response is to apologize that the student missed the deadline, “I’m sorry, you missed the withdrawal deadline.” This seems innocuous; however, it deteriorates the well-intended policies that institutions have in place. Instead, skip the apology, and instead express empathy that they missed the deadline and provide specific steps or options that may be available to them.

We should not apologize for policy and for carrying out our duties as defined by our institution. The use of "sorry" in this instance indicates that we are at fault for their situation, which decreases perception of satisfaction with the services the department provides, removes the responsibility the student had to meet the deadline, and waters down authority. 

So sorry (really, this time)

Minerva offered fantastic tips on how to use the word "sorry" appropriately and avoid it when not warranted. 
1. Pause and think before you speak, practice verbal do-overs if necessary.
2. Be direct first, polite second. Say what you mean, and ask questions if needed.
3. Don't be sorry for saying "no." 
4. Keep apologies real.
5. Set realistic standards.
6. Accept that not all burdens are yours.
7. Learn to express compassion/empathy in different ways.
8. Learn to get comfortable with disagreement/debate
9. Define your own values/boundaries and respect your worth.

Not sorry

Finally, she recommended taking a proactive approach to minimize the reflexive behavior by learning what are triggers, what are the insecurities that underlie the behavior, what habits drive the behavior, and then track when it occurs and how it affected the outcome of the situation. A positive approach to change is to use “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry.” Replace “Sorry I’m late” with “Thanks for waiting for me”. She walked the audience through several scenarios to practice the reframing of word choices.

This engaging, interactive, and honest session left the audience filled with tools to improve their communication with others. Minerva was a fantastic presenter who gave the audience a great deal of content to reflect upon. As a regular AACRAO speaker and a professional leader in the field of higher education, she delivers every time. No apologies for bragging about her presentation style and you may only be sorry if you missed this superb session.


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