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How to Get Ahead: Sorry Not Sorry


Not that long ago, someone I hadn’t heard from in months and barely knew texted me out of the blue to ask for a favor. I won’t get into the specifics of the favor but let’s say it involved some cats and me putting the cats somewhere other than that person’s house as if I have some cat teleportation machine just sitting around my apartment.

Included in the spontaneous text were an urgent deadline 48 hours away (“They have to leave Tuesday OR ELSE”) and some long sob story that far exceeded the 160 character limit of a normal text message.

Without even thinking about it, my involuntary reaction was to tap out “I’m sorry but…” Here I was being asked for a huge favor — finding a place to put two cats who are someone else’s responsibility on a moment’s notice isn’t easy, even for veteran cat ladies such as myself — and then apologizing for the fact that I couldn’t drop everything and take this on. What the hell is wrong with me?

Many years ago, someone older and wiser than me gave me a piece of advice I’d like to pass along to you: Stop being sorry for everything.

The issue of apologizing for things that you really don’t feel sorry for is particularly common in women (but men do it too), and I’ll spare you the pathetic hand-wringing over why that might be. Perhaps we’re afraid to be assertive. Perhaps we really do feel sorry more than men due to our squishy pink brains. Who knows, but we do know it’s a problem. In fact, there’s even a Chrome plug-in to help you eliminate phrases that “undermine” your message.

A Fast Company article from 2014 addresses why all this being sorry is so bad for the apologee:

Apologizing unnecessarily puts women in a subservient position and makes people lose respect for them, says executive coach and radio host Bonnie Marcus. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Manhattan-based think tank, Center for Talent Innovation and author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Talent and Success, says using “sorry” frequently undermines our gravitas and makes them appear unfit for leadership.

In other words, saying you’re sorry makes you appear pathetic. I’m sorry, but that seems only a tad extreme. Oops, I just did it, sorry.

The problem is so bad there are even articles about how you should feel bad for telling women to stop saying they are sorry. That’s right, you better tell them you’re sorry for policing their communication, you sorry bastard.

The Fast Co. article continues:

Marcus suggests keeping a log of when you “sorry,” what the situation was, and how you felt. Sometimes, “sorry” is just a verbal tic, but some usage patterns may indicate a situation or person who makes you feel insecure, she says. Being aware of those triggers and how they influence your language can help you be more vigilant in “changing your communication so you’re coming from a position of strength and equality,” she says.

Trusted friends can help you break the habit by quietly letting you know when you’re using “sorry” inappropriately, Cramer says. Knowing that you’re under another’s watchful eye is also going to make you more aware of your speech, she says.

Can we be real here? If the goal is to be more confident and less wishy-washy in your communication, I’m not entirely sure asking someone to call you out for no-no words is the way to go about it. Then again, we all know women are completely incapable of even visiting the bathroom without the assistance of their friends, so it makes sense that someone would recommend they lean on friends to tell them to knock it off with the sorrys.

There is something to be said for a little self-reflection here. If you say “sorry” 20 times a day, it’s highly unlikely you mean sorry in its dictionary form. You can be sorry if you were running late and made your kids wait 20 minutes after school to be picked up, you shouldn’t be sorry if a colleague asks you the status on a project that isn’t due for a week and you haven’t finished yet. You can be sorry for failing to deliver on a promise you made, you shouldn’t be sorry for asking the barista at Starbucks to fix the latte they screwed up.

As for those cats I was expected to find a foster home for at the last minute? I gave the owner some resources and suggested if that doesn’t work, she should surrender them to the animal shelter and hope for the best. I never did hear back.

Image: Commons