How many times a day do you use the word "sorry"? Statistics on Americans are hard to find, but the BBC reports British people say it at least eight times a day, and some say it as often as 20 times a day. And informal research supports what many people have observed: Women say "sorry" much more often than men do.
What's wrong with saying "sorry"? Nothing, if you've done something that truly warrants an apology. If you text while driving, run a stop sign, and bash in someone's fender, then by all means, feel free to say you're sorry. In fact, research shows women and men are equally likely to apologize when they've actually done something to harm or inconvenience another person.
But women are likely to say "sorry" or downplay ourselves and our accomplishments in all kinds of situations when an apology isn't really warranted, sociologist Maja Jovanovic explains during an entertaining talk at the TEDx TrinityBellwoods event in Toronto. She's noticed women apologizing when taking the microphone at a conference, speaking up during a meeting, or when someone bumps into them in a hallway. What do you do if a coffee shop gets your order wrong, she asks? You apologize for asking them to do it over.
It's a bad habit, and you should stop, she says. "Apologies matter. Don't let anybody tell you differently," she says in her TEDx talk. Sure, she acknowledges, if used appropriately, they can heal wounds and calm people down.
"But if you're beginning and ending your sentences with 'sorry'--people aren't looking at you going, 'Damn! How can I get some of that confidence? How can I promote that woman?'
If you're beginning and ending every sentence with, 'Sorry about that,' 'Sorry, is this a good time?' 'Sorry, can I come in?' 'Sorry, can I speak?', don't be surprised if there's nothing left of your confidence at the end of the day, because you've given it away with every needless, useless apology."
So how do you break the apology habit? Begin by catching yourself, and maybe the people around you, as well, whenever you apologize needlessly. If you find yourself saying "sorry" for no reason, then take it back--midword if necessary, Jovanovic recommends.
She says she's been interrupting other women's unneeded apologies for three years now, including strangers in parking lots and at the supermarket.
"And 100 percent of the time when I interrupt another woman and I say, 'Why did you just apologize for that?' First she says 'sorry' for saying sorry. But what she then says is, 'I don't even know.' It has become our habitual way of communicating, and we need to stop."
If you're going to stop saying "sorry" so often, what should you say instead? Jovanovic has a few really excellent suggestions:
1. "Excuse me."
If you and someone else bump into each other, "Excuse me" is a perfectly good thing to say, and one that doesn't automatically put the blame on you. If you want to speak up during a meeting and you have to cut in on someone else, then "Excuse me," is a good way to acknowledge you may be interrupting without demeaning whatever you're going to say next. It's also a good opener for questions like, "Is this a good time?" It allows you to be courteous without apologizing.
2. "Thank you."
Thanking people is almost always a good idea, and you might be surprised how often a "thank you" can take the place of an apology and even improve on it. For instance, if you've been venting at length to a friend about your work or relationship frustrations, rather than say, "I'm sorry for going on about this," try, "Thank you for listening," or "Thank you for being my friend," Jovanovic suggests. Instead of criticizing yourself, you make your friend feel valued and appreciated.
Jovanovic recalls a time when she was one of four people at a restaurant waiting for a fifth to arrive for a business meeting. When he finally walked in, the sociologist in her was wondering how many times he would apologize and what sort of explanation he would give, but instead of all that he simply said, "Hey, thanks for waiting." The others all said, "You're welcome," and without further ado, they ordered their food and got on with their business.
3. Nothing at all.
You should really try this in situations where an apology is not warranted--and in fact the other person should perhaps apologize to you. Jovanovic collected apology stories from her research assistants, and her favorite was when one reported apologizing to a pizza delivery man who was late arriving at her house. "She said, 'Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry, we live in a new sub-development. Did you have trouble finding this place?'"
The TEDx audience thought that was pretty funny. Maybe you do too. And it is--but I bet you've said things just like that. I certainly know I have. But I'm going to try to stop. How about you?