Monday, January 17, 2011

Women in Business: We're a 'Sorry' Lot!

John arrives 10 minutes late for a meeting. He enters the room, quietly finds a seat and sits down.

Carol arrives a minute later, entering the room saying..."I'm sorry that I'm late. We woke up this morning to find that a water pipe had burst during the night... It was a mad scramble to get things under control, arrange for a plumber, get the kids off to school... All without water. Plus, traffic was worse since I left later than usual."

Women have a strong tendency to over-apologize. Not only do they apologize more than men do, they are much more detailed and verbal in their apologies, drawing more attention to the apology and the moment. In doing so, it will appear that the woman has more to be sorry for and will therefore receive more blame than do their male counterparts.

A recent study, conducted in 2010 by the University of Waterloo, found that men are just as willing as women to apologize for something they have done wrong. However, they feel that they have done something wrong far less often than do women, therefore apologizing far less. Additionally, women tend to use 'I'm sorry' to convey multiple meanings. It could...

  • Be used to express sympathy... I'm sorry for your loss...
  • Show empathy... I'm so sorry to hear that...
  • Soften a direct order... I'm sorry, but you'll need to redo this...
  • Be used in place of excuse me... I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bump into you...

Men tend to take apologies at face value, assuming that if someone is apologizing then they have done something wrong. Why is this important for the workplace? If men think that you apologize only when you have done something wrong, then every time they hear a woman say 'sorry' they will assign fault to her. Their assumption... If she's sorry she must have done something wrong.
This seemingly small ritualistic use of the word sorry can then significantly impact a woman's brand and others' perception of her.

The Work:

Pay attention to just how often you use the phrase 'I'm sorry'.  Consider if you were truly apologising for something and, if not, think of what you could have said instead.  There will always be an appropriate, alternative way of saying what you had intended, one that does not carry any unintended blame with it.  Try these different alternatives on for size, becoming more familiar and comfortable with them to ensure they come more readily to mind for the times and moments they are needed. 

In the meantime, should you find yourself being driven crazy by how often you say I'm sorry, well... for that... I'm sorry!

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