Women – when NOT to say sorry

Posted on: November 17, 2013

We are taught that we should say sorry when we have made a mistake.  This is generally good practice when a genuine mistake has been made, but is there a danger women say sorry too often and undermine their credibility in the workplace as a result?

Linguist Deborah Tannen, author of “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation” points out that men and women understand the word “sorry” in different ways.  Women will often say sorry to express empathy as in “I’m sorry that happened” whereas men will hear it as “I apologise, it’s my fault this happened” and respect the speaker less as a result.

For example, I was a guest on a live BBC radio programme last weekend and there was an awkward moment when the female presenter mistakenly announced a record which was not scheduled and there was a longish silence.  These things happen in live broadcasts but she then went on to apologise for it so profusely that listeners started to call in to comment on it. A simple glitch which would have been forgotten in five minutes became much more significant due to excessive apologising.

Since becoming aware of Deborah Tannen’s research I’ve started to monitor how often I feel the impulse to say sorry and to question whether I really need to or whether there is another way of responding.   I’m shocked by how often I say “sorry” unnecessarily.  I have noticed that women will sometimes put themselves “one down” in order to make the other person feel comfortable, but at a cost to their own credibility.

This becomes even more critical in formal situations such as presenting. How often have you heard someone start a talk by saying “I’m not very technical” as they wrestle with their PowerPoint?  It’s a bit like saying “please like me” and it always makes my heart sink as it neither shows confidence nor genuine vulnerability.

So, if you have genuinely made a mistake then by all means say sorry and accept responsibility. However, if you are a woman beware of saying “sorry” to a man in a work situation unless you really mean “I apologise”. Find another way to express yourself or you could unintentionally lose credibility.  And, unless you have just punched your host, don’t ever start a presentation with an apology.