Sorry, not sorry

How many times a day do you say that you’re sorry? If you’re Elton John, then not many times. It’s sad, so sad. Why can’t we talk it over? Oh, it seems to me [Elton John] That sorry seems to be The hardest word.

I can hear you humming along whilst you read! Oh no, that’s my brain humming along whilst I write. Oh no! Have you and I both got an ear worm now? No bother, because I have to confess that I’m already bit obsessed about the word sorry even without Elton singing it on repeat in my head. Yes, for sure sorry can be the hardest word to say – admitting to ourselves and others that we’ve made a mistake or gotten something so utterly wrong can be hard. To add to the emotional challenge of an apology, recent research shows that we can also get an apology wrong. Yes, you guessed it, we might need to apologise for apologising badly!

Research has shown that apologies can be effective or ineffective. If you stop and think about it for a moment, that isn’t a great surprise. Has someone ever apologised to you and it’s felt hollow and meaningless? This is what researchers call an instrumental apology, and serves to avoid punishment or rejection by peers. For fun, I’m going to re-name this The Politicians Apology; the apologist is responsible but does not admit it and apologizes superficially (#sorry,notsorry). A sincere apology on the other hand comes from the heart, let’s call it The Elton John Apology, which demands guilt, remorse and responsibility.

To further complicate the apology (sorry about this) you also need to consider the research on gender stereotypes. Counter-stereotypical apologies were more effective for men and even more effective for women. What does this mean? Well, if you conform to gender binary, then as a man you are best off apologising in a communal, sensitive and warm way (a feminine way). Whereas as a woman you will get a better response if you apologise in a more agentic way (a masculine way). Let’s call this one The Gender Bending Apology.

I think I’ve identified another type of apology. I’m going to name it The Confidence Eating Apology. Without apology, I’ll let you know there’s no scientific study behind this one. It is however based on years and years of executive coaching – developing many wonderful and diverse confident leaders, and 2 ½ years of delivering a Leading with Confidence programme. The latter has bought about an organisational culture change. I kid you not, it is powerful stuff.

This month I finished delivering the last workshops from this programme. In them we had really interesting conversations about the use of language and how we can inadvertently use language that makes us feel low in confidence. Alternatively, we can use language that supports and strengthens our confidence. “Sorry” can do both, but my frequent experience is that it tends to diminish confidence when over-used. The Confidence Eating Apology is a different version of the instrumental apology we met earlier, The Politicians Apology. In this instance, rather than the apologiser being in the wrong, they are using ‘sorry’ to appease the emotions of others.

Whilst this may have benefits in the short term, I believe it has a negative impact over time. Frequent use sends a message to self and others that the constant apologiser is incompetent, ineffective, less-than, not performing, not listening, you get my gist.

It is easy to develop a habit of saying sorry frequently, without even realising it. It becomes ingrained some people’s parlance. “Sorry, would you mind not stepping on my foot?” … “Sorry, can I just ask a question?” … “Sorry, I’d like to add something to this conversation” … “Sorry, am I OK to exist?” I know, I know, I’m taking it to the extreme, but the overuse of the word sorry is essentially telling others that we don’t really believe we have the right to be here, or take up our space, or share our opinion. As such it’s very relevant to the conversation about confidence.

Lera Boroditsky gave this Women’s TEDtalk on How language shapes the way we think. It’s 14 minutes well spent in my opinion to give you some insight and make you think.  She says that the way different languages are structured can make us feel differently. In English one would say “I broke my arm”. In other languages they do not apportion blame to the arm owner. They say the arm was broken by mistake. They consider intent.

Whilst we can’t change the structure of our language (not overnight anyway), we can change the language we choose to use on a daily basis. Many years ago someone I was in contact with sent me an email after an extremely long delay. I can be honest here and say it was somewhat frustrating. At the time, she was on a well-intended mission not to apologize and instead thanked me for my patience. I wanted to write back and say that I had not been patient, I had felt frustrated and irritated at the length of time it was taking to have a simple conversation. Please don’t tell me how I’ve been feeling or behaving when you don’t actually know! Instead, a simple explanation would have sufficed. If something happened that was outside of her control then she just needed to let me know. I can pick up the rest of it my side.

It may take a little more time to think about what to say instead of an automatic apology, but this can reap rewards. No longer are you putting yourself in the naughty corner, you are enabling others to manage their emotions when something doesn’t go according to plan, rather than doing this emotional labour for them.

I know I can get lazy and just use a quick apology to navigate my way through something.  I don’t mind sharing with you, that I decided to stop being over-apologetic last year. When I came back part time, still recovering from major surgery, I found myself starting all my emails with “Sorry I haven’t…” It didn’t take me long to realise that I needed to feel positive about time off work to recover, and that firing out an apology at the start of my emails would be no good. It took me a moment longer to consider what to say in my emails to maintain relationships without an auto-pilot apology. I felt better for it. Now I make an effort to continue this practice. I also gently challenge others for excessive or unnecessary apologies, through my coaching and workshops, but also with my friends and colleagues.

Not especially surprisingly, people from marginalized group tend to apologise more. Pick up Gabor Mate’s Scattered Minds for an insightful read on how ADHDers will assume they are at fault if something goes wrong. They won’t hesitate in apologising because their short term memory is poor and so it just becomes an autopilot of self-blame. At Zest we’re collaborating with the universities of Herts and Sussex to research some of this a bit more, so that our work across marginalised groups is better informed.

Of course, all of this said, there are also times when an apology is necessary. When this happens, people will see you as being a confident, emotionally mature person for delivering a timely, considered apology.

Please do share your thoughts around your levels and types of apologizing. Are you from a marginalized group? Do you over-apologise, or apologise where none was necessary?

Author: Dr Anna Kane, Founder of Zest Psychology

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