For many people, saying “I’m sorry” after certain situations, even those that don’t require an apology, is second nature. But over-apologizing can backfire, especially in the workplace: It can make others think less of you, lower your self-esteem, and water down the impact of future apologies.
The habit can come from a place of insecurity, and it can be especially common among women and people of color, says Patrice Williams Lindo, CEO of Career Nomad, a career consulting firm.
“We are taught culturally, especially from a Black woman’s perspective, to be super humble and to downplay our wins. That’s how I was raised,” Lindo says. “It was a problem to be prideful in how you spoke about yourself and your accomplishments. So we feel inadequate and insecure.”
Lindo says that the need to over-apologize is born from this pattern of self-doubt — and recognizing situations when you should and shouldn’t say “I’m sorry” is one of the first steps to finding better phrases to use instead. Here are three common scenarios where you might be tempted to over-apologize and what to consider saying instead.
If you’re experiencing technical difficulties
Hybrid and remote work gained popularity in the last few years, causing people to use their electronic devices more than ever. Unfortunately, no matter how tech-savvy you are, technical difficulties are bound to occur. And they usually aren’t your fault.
Could you think about a glitchy video call, for example? You might feel compelled to apologize if it takes a long time for a presentation to load, if buttons malfunction, or if there’s another technical lag. ″‘I’m sorry’ is often a phrase that people use when they need to fill space,” Lindo says. “They aren’t comfortable with silence.”
Instead of apologizing for things out of your control, use phrases like, “I appreciate your patience” and “Thank you for working with me” to overcome any awkwardness and reinstate an air of confidence.
If you need to join a conversation
Suppose you’re attending a meeting led by a colleague. Someone raises a point you agree or disagree with, and you want to share your viewpoint. You might interject by saying, “Sorry, but I’d like to weigh in.” This situation does not require an apology, Lindo points out.
“If you have information to add to a conversation or an opposing point of view, that’s completely OK,” she says. “People use ‘I’m sorry’ in these situations to penetrate the conversation and have their voice heard when they don’t have to.” Instead of apologizing, use phrases like ’“I’d love to add,” “I think that,” or “Here’s a different perspective.” These phrases help you contribute without sounding scared to do so.
Lindo says to assess the situation before you speak using the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, and Result) method, which can alleviate the need to apologize. “Let’s say you want to express an opposing point. First, consider the situation and ask yourself, ‘Is this an appropriate time?’ If not, think about what task you can do, maybe reaching out to a manager or advisor before saying something you may have to apologize for,” she explains. “Decide what action you want to take, and ask yourself, ‘What result am I looking for after this conversation?’”
If you’ve made an error
We all make mistakes, especially at work. If you’ve done a task incorrectly or accidentally offended someone, saying “I’m sorry” wouldn’t be the wrong response, but it wouldn’t be the most decisive response. “When you do something wrong, the reply doesn’t have to be ‘I’m sorry,’” Lindo says. “You can speak to the action you’ll do to investigate or resolve the problem.”
Other phrases can better show that you’re ready to do what it takes to make the situation right. Those can include: “Thank you for the feedback.”
“I take full responsibility”; “I appreciate your bringing that to my attention — how can I improve?”
Lindo notes that a sincere apology isn’t bad, but it’s ideal only to say “I’m sorry” when you genuinely mean it to ensure it comes across as genuine.