Alternatives to Always Apologizing

A simple “I’m sorry” can be an effective way to resolve a conflict and repair a relationship. But what if you say it a lot, even when it’s not necessary? You might have the “sorry syndrome.” That’s an overwhelming need to apologize for every little thing, even if you aren’t to blame or it’s out of your control. Left untreated, business owners can damage their standing in the market. Learn more about over-apologizing and what you can do to overcome the habit.

Why Is This Important?

Apologies are meant to express regret when you’re at fault. So if you frequently use it when you haven’t made a mistake, you lose credibility. People eventually dismiss your apologies, and you. They tend not to take you seriously. That means you’ve lost one of your most important tools in business—your voice. How can a prospective client have confidence you’ll deliver what you promise?

Too many apologies can also give the impression you’re insincere. You are just trying to avoid conflict so you can move on. Imagine doing that with a customer who has a legitimate complaint. It’s likely to escalate the situation, not calm it.

Who Is At Risk?

There are a number of factors that contribute to the over-apologizing habit. For some it’s a lack of confidence, for others it’s being risk adverse. That’s common with first-time business owners just starting out. With others, it might be the way they were raised or a trauma they suffered. Still, others have a personality that’s further on the submissive end of the scale.

Some believe there is also a gender component. Research has shown that on average, women say sorry more times than men. A 2010 study reports it’s because women have a lower threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior. So they apologize in situations when men would not consider it necessary. Maja Jovanovic in her TEDx speech says women use it to downplay their accomplishments. She suggests that’s due to the societal influences, not biology.

Alternatives to Apologizing

There’s a place for appropriate apologies. So the goal isn’t to eliminate “sorry” from your vocabulary. Instead, it’s important to recognize when it’s not appropriate and substitute something else.

Writer Chloe Parpworth-Reynolds says it’s inappropriate to apologize when you: didn’t do it, are avoiding conflict, making reasonable requests, feeling like you’re a bother, are just being polite, are being assertive, or if others have told you to stop apologizing.

Here are some helpful alternatives to use in these situations:

  • Offer a solution – Think of it as a correction instead of an apology. Give the person the correct information. For example, “I left out our quick start instructions in your last order. I’ve attached it to this email. Let me know if you have questions.”
  • Say “excuse me” – Jovanovic offers this subtle substitution. You avoid giving the impression it’s your fault. Instead, it says you recognize the situation but preserves your credibility. For example, “Excuse me, is this a good time?”   
  • Give thanks – Turn the apology into a statement of thanks. For example, if a customer has been waiting on you to finish a phone conversation with another client, say “thank you for waiting.” You respectfully acknowledge the inconvenience and expressed gratitude for their response. If someone calls your attention to an error you made, say “thanks for catching that.”
  • Just say “no” – Don’t apologize for your response to an unreasonable request. Instead say “I won’t be able to do that” or “That won’t work for me.” If you can, offer an alternative, “But I can do this . . .”
  • Download the app – Yup, there’s an app for this situation. The Chrome Web Store offers the plug-in app, “Just Not Sorry.” Use it with your Gmail account and it will flag words or phrases like “sorry” that can undermine your message. Then you decide whether you want to say it a different way.

There’s a place for apologies in your business—when used appropriately. But be wary of those  times when “sorry” is over used. Keep your credibility intact by recognizing signs of the sorry syndrome and take advantage of these alternatives.