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The Modern Art of Apology

Aliya Rajah, Founder, Coaching With Aliya @coach_aliya

Sorry. Singer Elton John found it famously hard to say in his track from 1976, while the BBC claims British people now say “sorry” as much as eight to 20 times a day. Either way, this innocent-looking little word has become increasingly loaded in the past few years, particularly for women. I’m hearing more and more from the media and celebrity world that strong women shouldn’t say sorry and how apologising is a surefire way to give your power away. In many ways, that stance is understandable.

Studies show that women apologise consistently more than men, and over-apologising soon puts your capabilities in question if you’re not careful. So why do we do it? It’s mainly about what women have been taught to consider sorry-worthy. Women have been conditioned to place more emphasis on relationships, being liked, and being judged positively by others. Therefore, we make more effort to ensure our actions aren’t causing harm or offending other people, claiming fault when there usually is none. In that sense, sorry can be a quick linguistic trick to play nice and cover our backs.

That said, apologising is tricky with many different dynamics, especially in the workplace. Point blank refusing to say sorry sends the message that we are never wrong and that’s not the case for anyone. I definitely believe in not having to apologise when it’s not warranted, just as I’m a strong advocate for doing it at the right time. It’s about understanding the difference and learning to communicate what we need as confidently as possible, so we don’t undermine our value.

There is already plenty of politics to navigate at work, and if you keep apologising all the time it can imply you lack confidence. The knock-on effect when you appear less confident is people trust you less to fulfill obligations, creating (or reinforcing) a hierarchy where you’re on the lowest rung. Naturally, this makes it harder to progress and get the career opportunities you want. If you find sorry slips out too easily verbally or over email, awareness is the first step. Recognise you’re doing it and ask yourself what’s really going on in that particular situation. Is it actually appropriate to admit fault here?

For example, are the demands being placed on you unreasonable? If you’re constantly expected to stay late or attend meetings after hours, it’s not your responsibility to live up to expectations. Instead, explain your position calmly and get comfortable establishing boundaries, if the other person doesn’t accept it, that’s on them.

What about when you are in the wrong? I’ve heard the advice “never apologise for anything. Say thank you instead.” I.e. you turn up 20 minutes late for a meeting and simply say “thank you for waiting.” In reality, I would find that an obnoxious attitude to swallow if I was the one kept waiting. From a relationship-building perspective, it’s certainly not the best way to connect or show someone you value their time. If our actions have negatively affected someone and we can recognise that, we should own up and apologise. That way, admitting to a mistake helps to soften the relationship, creating stronger bonds for the future.

It takes a lot of courage to put our ego aside, have humility, and admit when we’re wrong.

If you lead a team at work, for example, it’s important to create an environment where making mistakes is acceptable from time to time. Mistakes happen, the key is being open and finding a solution to move forward. Acknowledging you’re not perfect gains respect, trying to conceal or deny it breaks trust.

An important point to remember is that focusing on the word alone gives us a very limited view of the real picture. Up to 93% of our communication is non-verbal, 55% is body language and 38% tonality, meaning a lot depends on how you say it. You can still say “sorry” without making yourself lesser when you consider your delivery. Perhaps you’re at a networking event and see a group of people. Instead of awkwardly hanging around and tentatively approaching while mumbling an apology, acknowledge that you deserve to be there and shift it to an assertive ‘hi can I join you?’

If we really want to recognise when a sorry might be necessary, we need to invest in improving our emotional intelligence and self-esteem. This allows us to be more attuned to those around us and meet people where they’re at. The difference between confidence and arrogance is humility and that’s a skill we all need to work on at one point or another. Like many things in modern life, whether to apologise is not black or white. Yes, we should think about how we present ourselves to reflect our strength and never apologise for our existence. But that doesn’t mean compromising on the basic principles of kindness and consideration that bring us together.

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