When Pantene released a video examining the way women overuse the word "sorry," it got the public talking about the power of language and how women are so quick to apologize for things that aren't their fault. Whether it's habit or learned behavior, many women use this five-letter word as a way to appear softer and more likeable -- especially in the workplace. But is it time for women to stop apologizing so much? "Sorry is a crutch — a tyrannical lady-crutch," according to a Time article. "It’s a space filler, a hedge, a way to politely ask for something without offending." According to another Boston Globe article: "It’s not that we’re actually sorry, but it’s that we think we’re consistently doing things we should be apologizing for. And that’s an even bigger problem." Six Randstad women leaders have shared their own experiences of apologizing when it wasn't necessary -- and they've offered women workers some advice on how to rethink their use of the word "sorry."
Here are their stories:
Not Everything Is Our Fault
Rebecca L. Harrell, Regional Vice President, Randstad USWhether at home or at work, women feel the need to say "I’m sorry" due to their cultural conditioning. As women, it's easier to diffuse the situation by apologizing so we can control it. We have been conditioned to not upset anyone. But excessive apologizing is often perceived as a sign of weakness or lack of confidence. We need to recognize that not everything is our fault nor do we need to apologize, just to be polite. As women workers, we need to show more self-confidence and overcome the feeling or desire to appease. I actually recently had a funny situation related to the word sorry when I was out with some of my girlfriends. We wanted to spend time catching up and stayed longer at the table chatting about the “I’m Sorry" campaign and how often we use the word without even realizing it. The waiter stopped by and dropped off our check. When he stopped by again and we didn't have our cards ready to go, the first thing out of my mouth was “I’m so sorry. I’ll get my credit card ready for you right now.” My friends started laughing and made me realize the first words out of my mouth were "I’m sorry!" They told me that I shouldn't have to apologize that our credit cards were not ready for him. We were paying customers and he could wait until we were ready to go. Some of the best advice I've ever received was from another female executive early in my career. She told me to never apologize unless I was willing to accept responsibility. She told me to always think before I spoke and to change my words to lead with a positive statement, such as "thank you for waiting" instead of "sorry I'm late." She even told me to put a rubber band around my wrist and snap it each time I said the word sorry. A few snaps will get you out of the habit!
Are You Really Sorry?
Kristin Kelley, Chief Marketing Officer, Randstad North America
Much like we are told at an early age to "behave like a lady," we are also trained as young girls to have beautiful manners and not to be loud and aggressive. As a result, in today's workplace, women are often times afraid to "go for the ask" or come across as assertive in any way that could warrant an apology. We have a compelling tendency to apologize for behaving with a strong voice and a mighty hand to avoid the stereotypes of being a head-strong, assertive woman. I was in a meeting once discussing a key decision my team had reached that I felt was important to the growth of the company. I also knew it was not going to be well-received by the audience. After delivering the news, I ended with a "sorry" (accompanied by a scrunched-up facial expression.) Immediately, I realized that in a moment, I had jeopardized the group's acceptance of the news, as well as my position and authority to deliver the news. I realized that saying "sorry" made me appear soft on a subject I felt confident about. Ironically, it dawned on me that I also said sorry the previous night to the pizza delivery man when I dropped the pen he handed me to sign the receipt. As women, we say it almost instinctively. Take a deep breathe and replace the word "sorry" with a stronger, more definitive word. Also, try to mentally take note what situations trigger your "sorries" and be mindful of them throughout the day. Lastly, think of "sorry" as the one word you were never allowed to say growing up without consequence. Then ask yourself, are you really sorry?
Track How Many Times You Say "Sorry"
Denise Dettingmeijer, CFO, Randstad North America
I played softball in high school and our coach had a rule that you can't say the word "sorry." If he heard you say the word, for any reason, you owed him a mile. I admit, I had to run some miles before I got the hang of it! To this day, whenever I hear "sorry," I immediately hear his voice saying "What are you sorry for? You owe me a mile!" It taught me at an early age, to not be sorry for things I wasn't really sorry for, and to find the right words for what I was really thinking and wanted. I taught his lesson on every team I played. When I joined the workforce, I was shocked to hear how often women started a sentence with "sorry." I've told my softball story many times, pointing out that it's not okay to say sorry for something you're not sorry about -- instead, find the right words. I've even told some of my close female colleagues "you owe me a mile." I think women feel the need to overuse "sorry" because they think it's polite. It's a polite icebreaker for a question. It's a polite way of asking for what you want. It's a polite word to say when you feel the need to say something, but don't know what else to say. Most women don't realize that saying "sorry" negatively impacts the perception others have of your self-confidence, or even worse, your capability. Pointing this out is a start. It also helps if you self-track how many times you say sorry -- and think about what you really meant to say. The next time, say what you mean. Having to run a mile for every time you say "sorry" is also very effective!
Use "Sorry" Strategically and With Purpose Kim Fahey, Vice President, Global Client Solutions
My misuse of the word "sorry" was when I was requesting a few minutes from someone. I’d apologize for bothering that person, and then ask for the time. Really, I wasn’t sorry; I just didn’t want to appear annoying. I’ve worked on reforming that approach. If I am contacting someone for a valid reason, then I have a right to ask for that person’s time, I don’t need to apologize. If the person doesn’t want to talk to me, that’s okay, and they will tell me. I think many women feel a sense of duty to be helpful, and a sense of duty to be liked. It’s great to be both helpful and liked, but not at the detriment of undermining your own success. If you are preparing for a hard discussion, write a script first and choose your words. Those words will stay in your head when it’s time to have your discussion. Then, pause before speaking. Sorry is a great word to soften a situation or to help reset a discussion. Use it strategically and with purpose, but not to apologize for the fact you’re in the room.
Think Before You Speak
Victoria Stumpf, Senior Vice President, Randstad Pharma
The overuse of the word "sorry" is definitely a topic that I am aware of and have noticed among woman in general. I have found myself saying sorry for no apparent reason -- simply out of habit. Women hear other woman saying sorry and mimic this subservient behavior. I have overused sorry simply because I brush against someone in the hallway or when I've spoken out of turn in a casual meeting. Women, in general, are geared toward pleasing and go out of their way to make sure everyone is happy. Think before you speak. What do you want your audience to feel and what impression do you want them to have of you? I love the message of this video and will be sure to share it on my social networks. As a mother of two daughters, I will be sure to make my children aware of this powerful video as well.
Stand Firm In Your Beliefs Alisia Genzler, Vice President, Randstad Technologies
Alisia Genzler, Vice President, Randstad Technologies
I often find myself saying sorry, but it's usually to soften a conversation that may come off as harsh. At times, I have to be very direct, and I find after sending a strong message I may say "I'm sorry I came off so harsh or direct, BUT we need to….." As women, we have a tendency to solve situations, and to make people feel good about the resolution of things. Many women who are confident use the word "sorry" and it's okay to use it. We shouldn't focus so much on what we shouldn't say or do, but instead think about what can make the biggest impact in certain situations. Women need to stop feeling bad about things or that others may view them as angry or defensive because they speak their mind. Stand firm in your beliefs -- even if it's not the most popular one. I think both men and women apologize for their wrongdoings, but women tend to apologize more because we feel we are committing personal offenses. Call it being more sensitive or caring, but maybe women should start thinking about a different approach.