Friday, July 22, 2011

"Sorry" Isn't Always the Hardest Word

by Suzie Johnson

A few months ago I attended a one day seminar for women that was, over all, a positive experience. But there was one thing the instructor said that resonated with me in a negative way.

Never apologize. When women apologize,” she said, “we lose credibility.”

Is that really true? I had to stop and think about it for a while. Just because I paid for a seminar didn’t mean everything the instructor said was the truth. I can’t say I shrugged off her comment, because I didn’t. It bothered me, and I’ve mulled it over in my mind time and again. If I hurt someone, if I offend someone, of course I’m going to apologize. What about when we confess our sins to God? Don’t we do that with remorse and sorrow in our heart? Isn’t that part of a repentant spirit? What could be wrong with that?

Recently, my co-worker, Becky, was having a communication problem. She was receiving training via web-conferences, in order to train others to use a new software program. The vendor told her not to hesitate to ask if she had any questions. But every time Becky would ask a question the vendor would start by saying, “Well. I already showed that to you but since you don’t remember…I’ll show you again.”

Becky felt incompetent. The next time she needed to call the vendor, she said, “Maybe I should start by saying ‘I’m sorry, I know you probably showed this to me before, but apparently I don’t remember. I guess you need to show me again.’”


“No,” I said immediately. “You have nothing to apologize for. She told you to call if you have questions, so you shouldn't have to apologize.”


Then I remembered the seminar instructor’s mandate that we should never apologize. Suddenly I saw it in an entire new way. Becky’s plan to apologize before she asked her question would definitely affect her credibility, as well as her own self-esteem since she’d basically be criticizing or belittling herself.

In this case, I agree with the instructor. She’s absolutely right that we lose credibility when we apologize then qualify it with a self-criticism. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I became aware of those around me apologizing for things that seemed insignificant; an interruption, talking too loud, not answering the phone fast enough. The more I became aware of it, the more I became realized I was also apologizing frequently.

I decided to try counting how many times I apologized in one day.

First thing Monday morning, I was at the drive-through window getting my iced-tea. When I went to pay, I realized I needed to get more change out of my wallet. As I dug for seven more cents, I heard myself utter those dreaded words: “I’m sorry.”


Someone asked me a question. My answer didn't come out quite as cheerful as it ordinarily would. I immediately said, “Sorry, I didn't sound more cheerful. I didn't mean it that way.”


I was in a meeting later that day. My pencil rolled on to someone else’s paper. I picked it up, and what do you think I said?


As I was walking down the hall and someone cut the corner and almost ran into me. Who apologized? You guessed it!


That evening, I had to comment on an essay someone wrote. There was something I disagreed with. It was my opinion. His essay was his opinion. Neither of us was totally right or wrong. Um, what do you suppose were the first words I typed? Did I really need to apologize for expressing my opinion when it didn't agree with someone else's? It wasn't rude or hurtful, and we weren't arguing. Why did I feel so compelled?

Then I thought back over my day, trying to count up all the times I apologized for something. I couldn’t. Sometime during the day I’d lost track. It struck me then, if you say “I’m sorry” so many times during the day that you can’t even remember the reason…
...there’s a problem...

This is what the seminar instructor meant. This is how an apology could cause you to lose credibility. It begins to sound trite, trivial, meaningless. Please don’t misunderstand me. I do not for one minute believe we should not apologize when it’s warranted. As Christians and as human beings, we most definitely should.

But when we’re saying it out of an eagerness to please someone, because of low self-esteem, or because it’s simply a habit, “sorry” will lose its meaning.

In Matthew 5:37, Jesus said, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’, ‘No’; anything less is from the evil one.”;He wants us to be known as people of our word. Similarly, let your “sorry” mean “sorry”, and not: “I’m stupid, dumb, incompetent, or clumsy.” We don’t want to lose credibility. We want to be people of our word.

For me, what may have once been low self-esteem is now actually a habit. I tackled the self-esteem issue, and now I intend to tackle this habit.

How about you? Do you tend to apologize too much? If you don’t, does it bother you when other people do?

Do you agree or disagree that we can apologize too much?

Suzie Johnson has won several awards for her inspirational novels (writing as Susan Diane Johnson), including the Maggie, Lone Star, Heart of the West, and Beacon awards, as well as finaling in the Touched by Love, Finally A Bride, Linda Howard Award for Excellence, and Virginia's Fool For Love contests. She is a member of ACFW, RWA, and is a cancer registrar at her local hospital. The mother of a wonderful young man who makes her proud every day, she lives with her husband and little kitten on an island in the Pacific Northwest. And although the beaches are rocky instead of sandy, lined with Madronas and Evergreens instead of Palm trees, and the surf is much to cold for wading, it is still the perfect spot for writing romantic fiction. You can visit her blog, Suzie's Writing Place at


  1. Interesting food for thought, Suzie. I'm sorry to say I haven't given it much consideration. ;)

    I can see why this would be a huge problem if you worked outside of the home. So much of that is image and power, and the amount you can accomplish often depends on how much respect you can garnish.

    I'm not sure if it would make such a difference in the family, where esteem is not such a big factor. Sometimes an apology is the best way to bandage over a minor fault or annoyance, and keep the home running smoothly. Perhaps an institution that is supposed to run on love is different from one that runs by respect or power.

    It's got me wondering about the church...

  2. Of course I think we should be quick with our apologies when we actually do something wrong, but I agree we can apologize too much. It's a matter of balance.

    I did learn recently that abusive people try to get others to apologize in order to control them and exert power of them. Just something to keep in mind in the whole conversation.

  3. I had never thought of it before I went to this seminar, either, Barb. And truthfully, I never noticed people who apologize for things that don't require apologies. I never thought of it as losing credibility. I'm still on the fence with that one. But what I do believe does cause you to lose credibility and other people's respect is when you begin your sentences with a self-criticism and apology when there is nothing to apologize for, the way Becky did.

    I wonder if "excuse me" or "pardon me" would work better than "I'm sorry" in some cases?

  4. Dina, that is a great point. I never really thought about it that way. And it makes me wonder about people who start their sentences with "I already told you that, but..." Are they just annoyed? Overworked? Or trying to intimidate the other person? I would hope it's the middle option, but sadly, I know there are people who enjoy intimidating others.

  5. Definite food for thought, here.
    I find myself saying "sorry" much too often for things I feel guilty about; places where I've not met my own expectations, or fear I've not met someone else's, even if I didn't actually do something wrong or cause someone harm.

    Interesting note, Dina. I wonder if that means that those of us who apologize incessantly have, at some point, been subject to some form of emotional/mental abuse and learned that behavior?

  6. Niki, I do the same thing. Guilt or not meeting expectations that I usually put upon myself usually equals an apology of some sort.

    I think Dina's on to something with that theory, too. I've been thinking on all the people I've know who experienced some sort of abuse (emotional or physical) and they do all share this common trait that is undoubtedly learned behavior.

  7. I think any word that is overused or merely habitual loses its meaning. But, are you sorry? Say so.

    It's the insincere "sorry" that bothers me.

    The incidental ones? Not really. "Sorry I bothered you," isn't insincere or weak, if you're sorry you bothered someone. I am sorry if I've inconvenienced or annoyed someone else. Especially in a business setting.

    I need to do my job and the other person needs to do his, but I've never felt the need to flex my muscles or never show weakness. Certainly, I want to appear professional and competent, but I don't see how being sensitive to other people's feelings or my own shortcomings is damaging to my credibility. If you're confident in your abilities, why should something like being polite damage your credibility? I think it's the overbearing people who are insecure.

    To me the whole "when women apologize . . . " comment sounds like it comes from a feeling of inferiority. Why can't women in particular apologize even for trivial trespasses or inconveniences? Is it demeaning for a man to say, "I'm sorry, honey, I forgot to pick up my dirty clothes"? I don't think so. And I don't think women need to go around pretending like they're either faultless or rude. I think "sorry," from all parties is essential in maintaining a mutually respectful relationship of any kind.

    No, we don't need to apologize when we're not at fault. But what does it hurt, even in the small things?

    My pencil rolls onto someone else's paper? I have inconvenienced that person. I'm sorry. And I'm polite to express that to the other person.

    I'm taking a while in the line to get the right change? I have inconvenienced the person at the cash register and those behind me. I'm sorry. And I'm polite to express that and not just assume that, of course, everyone can wait on me as long as I feel like taking. Without an apology, people assume you feel like the whole world revolves around you, which I'm sure is not anyone's intention.

    Constant apologies over everything and nothing, like constant anything, can be very irritating and insincere. But our society has lost so much gentility and thoughtfulness over the past few years, I'd rather have someone apologize too much than not at all.

  8. Sharon GillenwaterJuly 22, 2011 at 4:55 PM

    This is something to think about. I would have done exactly the same thing you did while searching for those extra pennies--because I would be making someone wait. In that instance, I don't think a "sorry" with a smile is a bad thing.

    I don't think apologizing makes us lose credibility, and I don't agree with the lady at the seminar who said to never apologize. Some things definitely call for an apology.

    But I think you had some good points about when it's not appropriate. Niki nailed it, too -- about not meeting our own expectations of that of others.

    For me, I also think it comes from growing up Southern (Texas 40-50 yrs ago) where ladies were expected to be gracious, polite and considerate (sometimes to the extreme.)

    Hmm, sorry, Suzie, on second thought, I don't think I'm going to worry about it.

  9. Hi DeAnna,

    I think in some workplaces there is that whole men vs women dynamic going on. I totally don't understand that part, and you're right, I think the woman who said women lose credibility was coming from that kind of a dynamic because now that you've said that, I remember something she said in the seminar. She used to work at a large computer company when PCs were first becoming available. She was put in charge of a group of men and they hated her. I had forgotten about that, and now that I do remember, she mentioned it several times. So she may well be thinking "women lose credibility" in that whole man/woman workplace issue.

    And you're absolutely right about our society losing gentility and thoughtfulness. Boy is there ever a lack of that going around in my town. However, NOT in my workplace. The people I work with are so polite and thoughtful, that when I first went to work there I thought they must all be faking it and their true colors would show eventually. Nope. If everyone followed the model of my hospital coworkers, our society would be a wonderful place.

  10. Sharon, hi! I agree some things, many things, most things, call for a definite apology. I can think of several, especially when we hurt someone physically or emotionally.And I don't think it's wrong to apologize for little things. But I do think it's good to examine why we (I) might be over-apologizing.

    I don't think it's wrong to say "I'm sorry" when someone is hurting, either. I know some people respond with "It's not your fault" but I'm not apologizing to them, I'm expressing sympathy.

    I can't think of a good example right now (because my brain is so tired), but I do know one person who is always apologizing and the things she apologizes for are not things she's done or things that are under her control. Maybe like it's really cold in the office and someone says, "It sure is cold in here." She will apologize, but she doesn't control the heat. That's a weak example, but it's things along that line that I'm wondering might cause someone to lose credibility. Not that something like that would have ever occurred to me before that class.

    And yes, I totally agree with Niki about it possibly stemming from not meeting expectations. She's so smart, isn't she? :)

    Good thoughts, Sharon. Thanks! Everyone has such good thoughts today.

  11. Oh, yes, I almost forgot: One thing I learned when I went to work in hospitals, is that when someone complains, you are never to say "I'm sorry." To do that is to accept blame on behalf of the hospital and accepting blame leaves the hospital open to a law suit. Isn't that a sad expression of our society? I've had so many people express something that went wrong for them, and it's so hard to hear sad stories and not say "sorry". But when I went to work at the hospital I'm at now, with the awesome boss I have now, she said it's okay to say, "I'm sorry you had that experience."

  12. Had to think about this one for a while.

    I don't have a problem with the little sorries, like the grocery store example.

    I think it's really dumb when people apologize for something from the past they didn't do. (Politicians seem to have discovered this in the past few decades. I guess they feel it makes them look good. But they can't apologize because (for example) the US had legal slavery in the 19th century. They didn't participate and there's no one left to apologize to.)

    The other one that annoys me is the I'm-sorry-you-were-offended apology, which is really just another way of extending the insult. I've seen that one a fair amount in the last few years too.

    Now my dh does get on my case for apologizing. What he's noticed is that I'll sometimes make assumptions that I'm bothering someone or that they might get offended if I do something. (I'm sorry to bother you, but ...) I'm trying to be polite, but I see his point. It's not like I've actually offended anyone yet.

  13. Oh, CJ, great examples. "I'm sorry you were offended," is not an apology. I see this one constantly, too. Especially, it seems, in the media as they attack certain politicians with things that should be off limits. Then they think they're giving the illusion of apologizing by saying "sorry you were offended."

    Your other example about apologizing for slavery, hits me where I live. This past week, I mentioned the Pequot War in a paper I had to write. Then we post it to the class for discussion. I almost said, "I'm so sorry to say my great-great-great grandfather was one of the colonists who fought in the Pequot War." What I did end up saying, and I guess it's still kind of along the same lines, was "I'm ashamed to admit my ancestors...etc." I didn't need to do that. I'm not them. I wasn't there. None of us were. It's tragic and I'm sad about it, so I'm sorry that way. But not in an accepting blame kind of way.

    Thanks CJ, for your excellent examples.

  14. I guess a little bit of my point is that I think in the workplace some women try to overcompensate. They think they can't show any imperfection or humanity because it might be perceived as weakness.

    I used to work in the corporate world, and I saw women like that who thought they had to be rough and brusque and hard to be seen as competent. I think, if you're competent, you don't need those other things. A woman can be a CEO and still be a lady.

    And I guess I get a little ticked off at anyone who categorically says, "When women X, then Y happens." I just don't think that any group as large as "women" (more than half of the population of the whole world) can or should be lumped together like that. And I don't think they categorically need to make up for some perceived lack in themselves in the business world or in the world in general. Again, statements like that make me think the person saying that feels the need to make up for his or her own perceived deficiency.

    Do some people over apologize due to lack of self esteem? I think they do, but it's a self-esteem issue, not a politeness issue.

    Anyway, sorry (heh heh) for being so contentious. Just had to make a few comments.

    And I'm glad you have a genuinely polite workplace. It makes so much difference. When I went to work for the place I work for now, I had some misgivings. I mean, attorneys will do anything for a buck, right? But I ended up working for two of the nicest, most considerate and ethical Christian men I've ever met. And, yes, a pleasant workplace makes a tremendous difference in how our days go.

    I'll shut up now. ;)

  15. Oh, DeAnna, I don't think you're contentious at all. I do think for myself, over-apologizing was a self-esteem issue. I've gotten past that. Now it's a habit. So I want to be aware of it and make sure I don't apologize for the office being cold to the very people who work there when I have no control over the heat. But if I talk too loud or bump into someone or make a mistake, of course I'll apologize and I won't feel like because I'm a woman I can't or shouldn't apologize. You know, you've really brought up another point in my mind. I really don't like attending workshops where the instructor has an agenda along the lines of making women think that we somehow have to act this way or that way in order to be "equal" to the men they come in contact with.

    Thanks for all the food for thought, DeAnna.

  16. I know I'm not going to worry too much sbout my sorries. I think if I say it, even casually, I mean it. I don't like to inconvenience others.

    I don't think I over do it but I'll probably be aware of each sorry.
    But I think I know what the workshop leader meant. It starts to bug me when someone apologizes too much, for things they don't need to worry about. That does come across as very low self-esteem (or in the passive aggressive person - a form of manipulation. Grrrr)

    "sorry" to be so late today, Suzie. I was away from my desk for a change, working outdoors today. yeah, I know. why today?

    This was a great 'make ya think' post.

  17. What do you all think of "I'm sorry that what I did hurt your feelings"? Is that along the lines of "I'm sorry you had that experience," or "I'm sorry you were offended"?

    Also, I was contemplating this. I think when I say, "Sorry to bother you, but...," it's because I know I might be bothered by it. LOL. So I guess that says something about me.

  18. Thanks Deb. It made me think a lot, too. Sometimes it's a dangerous thing, but sometimes it's a good thing. LOL!

    I had to deal with a passive-aggressive manipulative person last week. It is so NOT fun.

    So, you got to work outside? Is it still hot? I think we hit 57 today. Boy am I tired of this cold dreary weather.

  19. I'm sorry (pun intended) it's cold and dreary where you are Suzie. In July! Imagine. How much heat would you like? I'm not sure what our high was today. It was 102 at one point when I checked.

  20. No, Dina, I don't think it's the same. "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings" is taking ownership of what you may have done or said.

    "I'm sorry you were offended," is putting it back onto the other person. Now not everyone who says that means it that way. We've heard it dozens of times, and it's just kind of in our heads. So I don't think we always think about things that are commonly said, and what's behind their true meaning. To me, "I'm sorry if you were offended," really means, "I really meant what I said (or did) and it wasn't wrong. But maybe by saying that, you'll think I'm sorry." But again, I'm smart enough to know that not everyone who says it means it in that negative way. I think we also have a responsibility to not take offense when things people say don't come out the way we think they should. Some of us are socially awkward and when we're put on the spot we don't think as quickly as others and the wrong words come out.

    I think by saying "I'm sorry you had that experience," my boss wants to in some way acknowledge the person had something hurt them or a family member, and acknowledge they're really hurting over it, without putting the hospital at risk. She wants them to know she cares. She is such a genuine person, that you know when she says it, she means it. I think if we didn't live in such a litigious society, she would feel perfectly comfortable saying "I'm sorry," without the qualifiers. And I don't think "I'm sorry you had that experience" is the same as "I'm sorry you were offended."

    LOL on the "bothering you" part, Dina, because I think I'm in the same boat you are with that one.

  21. LOL, CJ. Well, I'd like it to be 86 with a breeze and no humidity. That way I could enjoy soaking up the sunshine without sweltering.

    A strange phenomenon is happening. With all these dark and dreary days... I think they said we have had 78 minutes of over 70 degrees this spring and summer. My hair seems to be getting darker. I think it's because there's no sun, or on the rare days when there is sun - I haven't been able to get outside because of my school work. It's weird because I've never had dark hair in my life. Maybe now I can wear yellow and some of those other colors like oatmeal that I've never been able to wear.

  22. Suzie, I know I'm chiming in late and I'll resist the urge to apologise! Thanks for your thought provoking post. One of my pet hates is when people say "No offense, but...." When I'm at work, I know I do say sorry, or something similar, to pacify people who are starting to get worked up over an issue. And, I agree with others that it is good manners to apologise when you have inconvenienced someone, especially if you're running late. This is something I consciously try and teach my children to do, with varying degrees of success :)

  23. Hi Narelle,

    I do that, too, - if someone perceives something is wrong, I apologize to pacify them even if I'm not the one who caused whatever they're upset over. Sigh...sometimes it's just easier that way.

    Hey, I noticed there's another Narelle on your Down Under blog. :)

  24. Excellent post, Suzie. This was the perfect vehicle to discuss this issue with JJ who has a habit of saying 'I'm sorry'. It's been driving me batty and I didn't know how to explain it correctly. But you did. I just read your post to him and he totally 'got' your words.

    Thank you for the enlightenment.



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