As an awkward person, I sometimes find myself saying sorry when it’s not necessary. This can project an image of insecurity and impede relationships or progress in the workplace. In this article, I’ll explain some rules of thumb for when saying sorry is the right thing to do, and when it can be replaced.
As a general rule, apologies hold more meaning when followed by an explanation of what will change in the future. For example, if I were to step on a colleague’s foot, I could apologize and say that I’ll look where I’m going next time. If I were to finish the cookies, I could apologize to my wife and promise that I’ll think about people other than myself next time. This allows others to hold me accountable.
This technique also allows you to filter out useless apologies. There’s no need to apologize to your guests if a surprise rainshower occurs on your birthday; it’s out of your control! Don’t apologize for anything out of your control. This also helps you keep the frequency of apologies at a more maintainable level.
The situation differs for what I’ll call courtesy apologies: brushing against someone in the hallway, asking a speaker to repeat their words, and sneezing loudly at an awkward moment all frequently lead to a furtive sorry! and the hope that everyone present will simply forget. I don’t believe that these are worth any lost sleep, as they’re more reflexive and far less under our control.
In cases where you feel guilty and know you’re forgiven, try substituting in thank you in your head—especially if you’ve already apologized—and if it sounds good, use that instead. For instance, if I’m late for dinner I might apologize by phone to a friend. When I arrive, a simple “Thank you for understanding. You’re such a great friend!” is polite and moves the focus from my tardiness to my friend’s awesomeness. If a work emergency comes up in the middle of the night, instead of apologizing to my wife for my loud typing, I could say, “Thank you so much for tolerating it!”
Finally, in those cases where an apology is truly necessary, take responsibility and don’t get defensive. When you apologize, you put yourself in a vulnerable position. Becoming defensive is a good way to negate any goodwill you might earn. If my friend tells me, “This is the fifth time you’ve been late for lunch,” now is not the time for me to launch into how each time it was totally unexpected and not my fault—even if it’s true!
In this article, I discussed a set of benchmarks to use when apologizing. Please feel free to let me know your thoughts!