In many public social and work situations women often use the phrase “I’m sorry” as a courtesy, much the way people use the phrase “Excuse me” or “Pardon me.” There is nothing problematic about this at all, in and of itself. However, there can be a negative impact on others no matter how casually the words “I’m sorry” are spoken. These words are often perceived as demonstrating weakness in the speaker.
In personal situations these same words can be magical, bringing people closer after an argument or bringing a sense of relief and calm. So what’s the deal with social and work environments?
Think about it for a moment. How often at work do you hear a man, whether employee, manager, or executive, say: ”I’m sorry”? There is a good chance it is very rare. How often do you hear a woman use the words? There’s an equally good chance that it happens more than once.
Being courteous IS a virtue. Acting with consideration IS a valuable trait. And women tend to be more courteous and helpful by nature and conditioning, both. When they use the words “I’m sorry” the situation is usually one of these:
- They didn’t hear what someone said and want it repeated.
- They forgot to bring something and indicate they’ll go get it.
- They didn’t get their point across exactly and intend to clarify.
- They didn’t understand someone’s presentation and want it explained more.
- They didn’t catch someone’s name at a party.
- They made a mistake in their work and plan to fix it.
So why should saying “I’m sorry” in those situations be perceived as indicative of weakness in the person using the phrase? It shouldn’t. But the reaction of others has to do with the culture in which we live. The definition of weak and strong is way too embedded for people to relinquish it fully yet, though hopefully our future contains a very different way of thinking. It is also a culture in which the way men think is most often viewed almost automatically as more valid, even when it isn’t, while women have to prove their outlook more often than not.
What to do about it?
This isn’t to suggest women should imitate men and end up reluctant to say anything. It just means that using different wording can diminish the negative effect in some public situations, since the people listening to women tend to rely on stereotypes and make assumptions.
What women can do, if inclined, is change their choice of words. It won’t seem like much, but when they do so, there is a subtle but definite shift in how they feel and what they project. They are still being courteous and civil and thoughtful, which is more natural and authentic for women to do, but these new words can provide some measure of distance, showing that the words are not emotional, but simply functional. So what to use?
Instead of saying “I’m sorry,” women can use the words “My apologies…”
This change of phrasing gives you more leverage than you can imagine and takes away any sign of instant concession (the perception broadcast by the words “I’m sorry” even though that is not what is intended). Human nature deals in predictable expectations. You are just shifting that in your favor. This is one way of addressing situations like those in the bullets above without resorting to indifference or silence, or by losing your own personal power.
In the end, courtesy matters most of all. But having freedom from illogical but very contemporary judgment calls in public venues is something women are entitled to have a whole lot more. It is vital for women to be authentic in how they feel because this projects that same strength of authenticity out to the world. There are many tools for doing this, but sometimes, all it takes is a small shift in vocabulary to make it clear what they do mean.
Try using the words “My apologies…” whenever you are inclined to say “I’m sorry.” How does it feel to you? Is there a shift in your awareness? Do you sense a difference in how others react? Do you find this beneficial? By all means leave us a comment on what you experience.