how can I stop my office’s “I’m sorry” culture?

A reader writes:

Do you have any advice on how to stop the “I’m sorry” culture in the workplace?

I’m finding my colleagues have created an extreme case of this culture, saying they’re sorry for being out sick, sorry for asking a question, sorry for needing to leave early to pick up their kids. Even when I tell them they don’t need to be sorry for these things, it continues. Surely they’re not sorry for life happening, but it creates this cloud of guilt in the office that’s difficult to shake. Do you have any advice on dealing with this?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 136 comments… read them below }

    1. Keymaster of Gozer*

      Or England. The place where you can have a perfectly legible two person conversation consisting only of that word.

    2. Minneapolis Nonprofit*

      Minnesota too!

      Does it help you if I tell you that I’m not really sorry? It’s just my upper Midwest speech pattern.

      1. MEH Squared*

        I was going to chime in as a Minnesotan. It’s just a figure of speech and a way to smooth over any awkwardness.

        1. londonedit*

          Yeah, in Britain ‘sorry’ only occasionally actually means ‘I apologise because I have done something wrong’. It more often means ‘excuse me’ (‘Sorry, could I just…’) or ‘whoops’ (as in the ‘Sorry! Sorry! Ha ha…sorry!’ dance when two people are in each other’s way) or ‘thank you for doing this’ (‘Sorry to trouble you’). People aren’t actually going around apologising to each other all the time, it’s just that ‘sorry’ has a range of meanings that smooth over interactions and act as a way of saying ‘I acknowledge you and I thank you for moving out of the way/letting me pass/doing something small for me’.

    3. LK*

      My thought too! I apologize on reflex when I bump into furniture. But it has nothing to do with feeling guilty (my massive guilt complex is an entirely separate issue lol). Nine times out of ten, it’s just how I say excuse me or a conversation opener.

  1. Water Snake*

    Cloud of guilt for whom? Are there other indications that people are feeling guilty, or is this a perception on your part that no one else shares? If the only thing going on is that people preface their statements with, “I’m sorry,” then the action seems to be that you change your perception of the words.

    1. Wintermute*

      yeah to me this sounds like a HEALTHY environment, one where people are aware of the fact they might end up creating more work or putting a burden on someone else and want to convey that they are not being disrespectful of their time or cavalier about creating a burden.

      1. Spencer Hastings*

        +1. It’s a signal that we’re thinking about the other person. Definitely not a bad thing.

      2. SunriseRuby*

        I absolutely agree with this interpretation. The letter writer’s response to “I’m sorry” reminds me of the way some people respond to “I’m sorry” with “It’s not your fault” when they’ve shared some bad news and their listener just wants to express empathy with that bit of verbal shorthand. It’s really odd to me that so many people don’t realize the many uses of “I’m sorry.”

        1. SunriseRuby*

          And even weirder that someone would think their listener was taking blame for their misfortune just because they said “I’m sorry.”

          1. Aggretsuko*

            I know! Some people lose their minds over that particular thing and I want to say, “An apology is not always and only because you did wrong!” Get over nitpicking that, people.

        2. Wintermute*

          that drives me NUTS when people do that, it’s like they’re taking your gesture of “hey, fellow human, though I do not know you well enough to know what specific sentiment may be comforting to you at this time, I wish to acknowledge you are going through a difficult experience.” and crapping on you for it.

          I know Transactional Analysis gets some stuff really wrong (their view of addiction) and some stuff is questionable at best (the life position “going from I’m not okay you’re okay to I’m okay you’re okay” stuff) but they really get it right when it comes to analyzing rote social exchanges and common conversation patterns– any why refusing to ‘play along’ comes off as so insulting and rude.

          The next time some jerk says “why? you didn’t kill them!” to me saying “I’m sorry for your loss” I swear I’m going to say “you’re kind to say that but… I know what I did.” and leave them guessing.

        3. Zorak*

          It’s annoyingly common for people to be pedants about “sorry” as a social nicety. I will never not roll my eyes.

        4. I am Emily's failing memory*

          Yeah, the only context where that response makes sense to me is when someone is apologizing for something which they ostensibly were responsible for, but which fell through/failed for reasons beyond their control, like:

          Pam: I’m sorry, I tried to get tickets to Hot Event, but the ticketing website couldn’t handle the demand and kept going down, and by the time I finally got through they had all sold out.
          Jim: That’s alright, it’s not your fault. Thanks for trying.

        5. TrixM*

          For a non-American, the “I’m sorry” is confusing, though – I don’t mistake it for an apology, but I always have to think about it for a few seconds.
          It makes way more sense to append “…to hear that” or “…for your loss”, if that’s what you mean.
          “I’m sorry” is more often used as a personal apology, and just seems more ambiguous than the social noise of saying “sorry” when someone bumps into you or you’re trying to get past.

          1. amoeba*

            Eh, it happens in other languages as well, though. In German, you say “Das tut mir leid” (literally translating, basically, to “this causes me pain” – weird if you think about it, I know!) and people are absolutely still doing the “Why? It’s not your fault!” thing. Drives me nuts.

        6. MurpMaureep*

          I am glad I’m not the only one who is put off by the “Why? It’s not your fault” response to a genuine “I’m sorry”. It always feels snarky and unkind.

    2. Lab Boss*

      +1, I’m from the upper midwest (US) and at least regionally, “sorry for X” doesn’t mean “I feel guilt for X” but more like “I recognize that X might cause some inconvenience for you, please don’t think I’m being thoughtless.”

      1. RabbitRabbit*

        And also “I hate that you’re having to deal with/go through/put up with (bad event on a scale from annoying to earth-shattering)”. I once had a couple of friends who loved policing my speech in that respect and after a few of those it made me not sorry at all that they were inconvenienced in some fashion.

        1. Lab Boss*

          As Dmitri Martin put it-

          “I’m sorry” means the same as “I apologize,” unless you’re at a funeral.

          1. She of Many Hats*

            Which is why I’ve started using “I apologize” and “My condolences” more often to ensure clarity.

          2. Not in your timezone*

            But it doesn’t! Sorry means sorrow. We feel sorrow when we apologise but also when we feel sorry for another’s pain. We also feel ‘sad and sorry’ when we lick our wounds. I feel sorrow that so many people are ignorant of this aspect of the language!

    3. Shirley Keeldar*

      People are making a good point that “I”m sorry” can be a social lubricant and doesn’t always express misery or guilt. But there is also this kind of thing: “I’m so sorry, I need to take Tuesday off because my appendix burst and I’m in the hospital. I’m really sorry. I know it’s awful timing. I’m so sorry.”

      Maybe that’s more what’s happening in OP’s office? I think that IS worth pushing back on—maybe the person with the burst appendix feels (slightly) better for all the sorry’s, but if that’s how every request for time off or accommodation is presented, it can leave people feeling like it’s a dreadful inconvenience to get sick or need help, which isn’t healthy.

  2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    My college-age son keeps apologizing for requiring help due to a pretty debilitating back issue.

    I finally told him to please stop apologizing for needing assistance because of a state of being. If he needs a thing because he needs it, then I will provide it. That goes for helping him with his socks, to helping him craft a professional email, or anything else that he simply does not have his in current toolbox.

    Now when he does it, I just say back to him “I will help you because I can, and because you need it.” Sometimes I drop in some boundary I need to set, “I can give you 5 minutes right after this call.” Not because he’s crossing boundaries, but to let him know that he’s not stepping over them by having a state of being. It defines that we each have standing/power in the situation, which he needs to help curb the apologizing.

    It’s extinguishing the anxious shame spiraling (but not quite enough that I won’t have to do the dishes for a month once he’s back on track).

    1. Unkempt Flatware*

      It really does get to this point, doesn’t it? My father nearly died in a single car accident and he would apologize for needing help after. Now, when I discovered he fell asleep at the wheel without car insurance, health insurance or a seatbelt, I then required a real apology.

    2. TootsNYC*

      my kids suddenly started thanking me for every little help I gave them. I started wondering what sort of framework I’d established in my home, that they didn’t feel entitled to my help.

      1. Parcae*

        But saying thank you doesn’t have any relationship with entitlement or whether something was a burden! I say thank you to people I’m *paying* to wait on me; why wouldn’t I say it when my parent passes me the salt? I would just assume your kids picked up a ‘thank you’ habit somewhere and think nothing of it. Probably someone taught them it was good manners.

      2. Critical Rolls*

        It could just be that you raised polite kids who acknowledge your efforts! My toddler says thank you sometimes, and I assure you she feels 100% entitled to my help, lol.

      3. Selina Luna*

        Huh. I want my son to feel like he’s entitled to my help, and I also want him to thank me (and anyone else) for helping him, regardless of who or why.

    3. TootsNYC*

      when people are like this, apologizing or overly thanking, it does make me wonder that, if the roles were reversed, would they seem similar requests from me as a burden?

      1. Irish Teacher*

        In my experience, they probably wouldn’t. Just because the people I’ve known who are most likely to apologise for asking for even the slightest help or who just won’t ask for it at all for fear of putting somebody out, tend to be the first to help anybody else and the last to expect any thanks for it.

    4. KateElla (UK)*

      I… thank you. I’m a carer for someone close and I’ve been battling with dealing with their continual apologies with grace (when its starting to really get on my nerves because of OTHER issues) and this are really good responses to use.

    5. Kristen*

      Great call on your demonstration of boundaries – I have a disability and my mom provides care. I love it when she expresses boundaries because then I can rely on the fact that when she’s helping me, it’s really okay for her.

  3. Aggretsuko*

    I come from “I’m sorry” culture and frankly, I NEED to apologize all the time to smooth over angry clientele, or management. I get so ticked off at people who complain about too many “I’m sorry’s.” Dude, you don’t live my life, and if handing out sorries like they are Halloween candy makes my day less difficult, then by god, I will continue to do so, even if I’m not actually sorry, even if I didn’t actually cause harm, even if I am apologizing on behalf of the company, even if I’m apologizing for asking a question when it might anger someone that I had to ask.

    1. Stuckinacrazyjob*

      Nod. A lot of the time a sprinkle of sorry can grease the wheels. People are a lot more pissed if you don’t seem regretful for inconvenience

    2. Elitist Semicolon*

      I was gonna say, sometimes a version “I’m sorry” is just good customer service. Arguing back with someone who is already upset is not going to accomplish anything, whereas “wow, I’m sorry to hear that; let me look into it” is enough to get the other person to stand down. Even if the final response is “I’m sorry, but there isn’t anything I can do.”

      1. Aggretsuko*

        Yeah. I just apologized for months of inconvenience for the following:

        (a) wanting to make sure that X knew they were going to be charged a few thousand dollars if I did what they wanted, because that service is free the rest of the year but not summer, and waiting months for X to verify they were fine with it instead of surprise-fee-ing them.
        (b) the person who had to sign off on it sending me an unopenable document and then forgetting to send me an openable one for months on end.

        I know darned well NONE OF THIS IS MY FAULT and I’m just being prudent, but it will be considered my fault anyway by X and the person who had to sign off, you know? Because I, personally, am the roadblock for not doing something easy-peasy in five minutes and taking months to do it because nobody was following proper processing.

    3. Kelly*

      Yes to this! I think it’s worth noting that women are generally more known for over-apologizing than men are. However, I firmly believe that for the most part, it’s because we’ve realized that being quick to apologize (even just for minor inconveniences) generally makes our lives and relationships easier. While I understand wanting people to apologize less, I think it runs the risk of overly policing people’s language (particularly women’s). It’s worth thinking about whether this is actually a work issue or if it’s simply somewhat uncomfortable to be the recipient of frequent apologies.

      1. Not in your timezone*

        This is one of MANY examples where the gender gap would be better fixed by men moving to the women’s side. Men should apologise more, not women less.

    4. Chirpy*

      I have customers who react to “I’m sorry, we don’t have that” with either telling me “you have nothing to be sorry for, it’s fine”, or “you, personally, *should* be sorry for mildly inconveniencing me with your store’s lack of the exact item I dreamed of, you worthless idiot”, so there’s no winning. It’s meant to be a polite letdown.

      1. Burger Bob*

        I like when they respond accusatorily with “[Other store] has it.” Okay? So…sounds like you know where to go next. >_>

    5. Flash Packet*

      I get internally… sad?… when I call customer service because, say, something was damaged in shipping and the rep says, “I am so sorry about that and I know it must be a big inconvenience to you.”

      I am sad [not the right word, but definitely not happy] because (1) things happen, (2) I really only care if the company can make me whole, and (3) I know the kind of customers who have made the Customer Service Apology the thing it is today.

      I think I’m most sad about #3. I hate that human beings feel entitled to be abusive to people who aren’t responsible for their inconvenience and who sincerely would like to help them.

      My ex used to berate reps over the phone and use a lot of language like, “You did X…” and, ya know, the person on the other end most certainly did not do X because they don’t work in the warehouse or in billing or whatever other department messed up.

      His calls to customer service usually ended with him being more angry and more frustrated.

      Meanwhile, my calls to customer service end with me getting waaaaaay more than what I’d originally thought would make me whole, partly because I always apologize to the rep who randomly gets my call.

      I once got a $1500, 18K gold, tanzanite and VS diamond ring for *free* because the company didn’t ship it overnight like I’d paid for. It showed up a week after my birthday. I called customer service hoping to get maybe a refund for the shipping and a small discount coupon for future purchases. Instead, the rep refunded me everything.

  4. Scooter*

    I wonder if the OP has either recently moved to a new area, or works in an office with a number of transplants from another area. Coming from the UK this is generally how people speak! Like Alison said it’s more of an acknowledgement of inconvenience than anything else.

      1. Performative gumption*

        Earlier I said sorry to the woman who elbowed me on the tube.
        But I said it in a slightly huffy tone and a side eye so she knew that it was a slightly sarcastic, passive aggressive sorry to shame her into saying sorry.
        Which she did, begrudgingly.
        Sorry LW, I apologise.

      2. Marion Ravenwood*

        Yep. I’m also in the UK and I apologise to everyone for everything. So far today: the cat (for getting mildly annoyed at her when she decided to sit on me right when I needed to get up to do something), my sewing machine (for swearing at it when it wouldn’t do what I wanted), a colleague (for being late in sending a document) and a neighbour who came to drop something round (because they’d had to go out in the rain to do so). And it’s not even 10.30 yet.

    1. Dinwar*

      There are some place in the USA like that too. Think of “Sorry” as the equivalent of “Um”–a meaningless bit of vocalized fluff that fills in a gap in a conversation or allows them to start speaking.

        1. JSPA*

          And “pardon” is further along the same route from “asking forgiveness” to “phatic acknowledgement of interruption.”

  5. Irish Teacher*

    Honestly, I think the “I’m sorry” is very much a cultural thing. I doubt there is really a cloud of guilt in the office. It’s just a way of being polite and acknowledging that you may have put somebody out.

    I think the best way you can think of it is just a sort of stock phrase. It doesn’t mean the person feels really guilty about being out or for asking a question (heck, in Ireland “sorry” before a question is simply a way of getting attention; I don’t know if that is true elsewhere as well or not, but here people say, “um, sorry,” as an alternative to “excuse me, I need to interrupt you for a minute”).

    I would kind of advise against trying to stop it. I would find it WAY more guilt inducing to have somebody telling me not to use a certain common phrase than I would using it. It would make me pretty self-conscious to think that if I want to pass somebody or need to tell them something urgently, I have to remember to say “excuse me” rather than “sorry” or that I have to remember not to preface “I have to leave early today” with “sorry.” It would be pretty much on a par with telling somebody to reduce their use of “how are you?” or some other common phrase.

    I think this is more a case where you might have to work on your own perceptions of it. Unless there is more to it and it’s more about their tone when they are saying this, it sounds more like they have a different personal preference on this issue to you or that they have different cultural norms. I think some cultures are more likely to only say things like “sorry” or “how are you?” when they really mean it, whereas others use those simply as indicators of politeness.

    “I’m sorry but I have to leave early today” doesn’t mean “I feel guilty about leaving early today,” at least not for most people. It generally means “I have to leave early today. I realise this may not be ideal for you and I wouldn’t do it for no reason, but today, it happens to be necessary.”

    1. Spencer Hastings*

      People in my area of the US usually say “excuse me” rather than “sorry” for the getting-someone’s-attention/need-to-get-past-you situation, but I picked up the use of “sorry” somewhere and find that I prefer it for some idiosyncratic reason.

    2. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Ah, reminds me of a scene from my favorite movie. “Don’t be sorry, be quiet!” “I’m sorry!”

      My grandboss precedes every question (and I mean EVERY question) with “I’m sorry, can I ask a stupid question?” It drives me NUTS (and it also wastes time as people who don’t know she does this tell her that of course she can ask a stupid question, etc). I have no standing to get her to stop so I’m working on learning to ignore it. It also makes me wonder what annoying habit I have that drives my coworkers crazy. I suppose I could always ask them….

      1. just another bureaucrat*

        I could well be your grandboss, I do it because I need to buy myself a second to phrase something a little less badly, if I’m interjecting to get others to pause (sorry interruptions need to happen sometimes, if someone is talking for an hour straight, they need an interjection now and then!) and also because it’s become a verbal tik at this point I have a really hard time not doing it even when I’m paying attention to not doing it.

        (Though I don’t think I am because people rarely tell me of course I can ask it because I just plow through.)

    3. TootsNYC*

      ooh, my father visited NYC and noticed that people said “sorry” instead of “excuse me” if they accidentally bumped into you.
      I told him that’s because in NYC, “excuse me” means “get out of the way,” in varying degrees of politeness and friendliness based on tone.
      So if you do bump into someone, that’s not the message you want to send. You want to actually apologize in order to de-escalate

      1. londonedit*

        Same in England. Sorry means ‘whoops, bumped into you there’. Usually both parties will say sorry if someone bumps into someone else. ‘Excuse me’ means ‘pleae move out of the way’, with varying degrees of politeness depending on tone.

        1. Jeebs*

          Hilariously, where I live (Boston suburbs) you often hear both at once. As in “Excuse me, sorry.” It’s one phrase.

          This combination is also used when interrupting someone who’s speaking or to preface a question that might seem confrontational, and can be used passive-aggressively during an argument as well (i.e. asking a question that might seem confrontational because it’s meant to be confrontational).

          The two parts of the phrase are usually also said in different tones, with the ‘sorry’ genuinely apologetic.

    4. Ava*

      ah, yes, this is super frustrating and ive been trying to express the feeling– is yet another thing im not supposed to do with my language in order to be “respected”– Don’t use to many social niceties (but not to few either!), don’t say “um” or “so”, don’t say “like”, don’t say “sorry”, don’t say “aint”, don’t say “yall”…. arg!

      if I’m offending someone or misscommunicating then i will make an effort to change my language, otherwise please just let me talk how i talk! you know what i mean!

  6. Llama Llama*

    I don’t think it all that terrible to be apologetic about things. Its a good way to smooth things over and to have better relationships with people.
    That being said, I do call people out on stuff when they really have no reason to apologize. I work with a team in another country whose native language is not English. At the beginning of calls, they are sometimes speaking said language. They always apologize to me. I always say, that there is no reason to apologize for speaking your native language.

  7. Just Your Everyday Crone*

    I wish US English allowed for better use of “I’m sorry” rather than have it mean anything from, “oops, have to go now” to “I cannot express how awful it is that your spouse just died unexpectedly.” While I get that people use it as a nicety, it’s hard for me (ND) to know which is which. And I do think this kind of thing does sort of contaminate people’s thinking when it sounds like people are apologizing for, eg, taking time off.

    1. TootsNYC*

      English has many other ways to say those things, including, literally, “oops have to go now” and “I cannot express how awful it is that your spouse died.”
      Including: “I’m sorry to hear that.” and “I’m sorry to disturb you” and “I’m sorry to have hurt your feelings.”

      Saying just “I’m sorry” is absolutely shorthand–I hesitate to say it’s said out of laziness, but certainly it’s often used instead of thsoe other phrases out of efficiency.
      It is reasonable to assume that the other person will understand which shade of meaning you’re expressing based on context.

      The people who say, “it’s not your fault” are pedantic idiots, and the rest of us don’t need to apologize because they are refusing to get with the program. They make a big impact, but the rest of us completely know how to deal with the “I’m sorry” based on what’s going on around.

  8. Katred*

    As a chronic “I’m sorry” say-er, I’ve found the following advice to be helpful: When you have the instinct to say sorry, try to redirect to a thank you. So, instead of, “I’m sorry but I can’t come in today because my child is sick”, it’s “thanks for covering me while I was out caring for my child”. I know the LW isn’t looking for advice on their own behavior, but it may be a way to model good behavior or coach direct reports.

    1. Zephy*

      I was coming here to say this. If it grates on you, OP, try replacing “sorry for inconveniencing you” with “thank you for accommodating me,” if you get the sense that that’s the usual context for all the apologizing going on and no one’s ever actually harming anyone else by *checks notes* having sick children, or malfunctioning appliances, or whatever. Be the change you want to see in your office, I’m betting you’re not the only person who’s noticed and is annoyed by this.

    2. learnedthehardway*

      Thanks for this – I needed it today. I’ve been falling all over myself apologizing for being out with the flu last week, but the reality is that I WAS SICK, and it’s nothing to apologize about.

      I am now moving to thanking everyone for their patience while I was sick with the flu.

      1. Mrs. Hawiggins*

        This is me today. I’m sorry to myself only, that I got the flu… it’s gone on WAYYY too long but I have been emailing everyone how much I appreciate their patience while I’m out. I’ve never had so many get well soons and we miss yous since I’ve done it this way.

    3. Misquoted*

      Yes, this! It’s polite, acknowledge the inconvenience (if there is one), and doesn’t send a message that they speaker did something wrong. “Thank you for waiting.” “Thanks for understanding.” “Thank you for handling that bug.” (I mean, if I’m home sick, I’m sorry about that, meaning I wish I weren’t sick because ugh, but I don’t feel I owe anyone an apology for being out sick…I didn’t choose it!)

  9. IsbenTakesTea*

    In my family, a lot of conversational conflict was resolved once we addressed the difference between the “feminine” “I’m sorry” and the “masculine” “I’m sorry.” (We genderized them for simplicity, since we discovered the genders were socialized to use/understand them differently.)

    The feminine “I’m sorry” is “I have sympathy the situation is bad”; the masculine “I’m sorry” is “I apologize for doing something wrong.”

    Social apologizing can be a weird mix of the two. It can just be a workplace culture thing to accept, though I see it as much more of a problem when it falls along gender lines.

    I feel for the letter-writer because social apologizing drives me nuts; I grew up around women who were socialized to constantly apologize for having emotions, lives, needs, or any other facts of existence that could “inconvenience” someone else, so I’m more prone to call it out directly.

    1. Wendy T*

      I can see ~both sides~ of the conversation – it IS really grating to bear the weight of someone else’s anxiety to hear someone’s unnecessary apologies. On the other hand, I read this really interesting article about how linguistically, women use “sorry” as a way to add nuance and context to a conversation. To your point, men tend to do this less often and think that “sorry” is only used to express regret for a direct mistake, when in reality, “sorry” emcompasses a lot of other useful meanings. Given that, my hot take is that women don’t need to apologize less, men need to apologize MORE.

    2. Irish Teacher*

      This is actually somewhat helping me understand certain conflicts with my brother where he takes my apologising to mean “I admit you were completely right” when I actually mean “I still think you were wrong but I might have overreacted a little/acknowledge that I contributed to the conflict too and want to meet you halfway.”

  10. Skyblue*

    I’m glad to see people pointing out that sometimes “I’m sorry” is just fine in this context. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that another person might be somewhat inconvenienced – that’s a nice thing.

    I feel like this phrase has been targeted because people have pointed out that women say it more than men… so therefore women should stop saying it? I’m sick of the implication that women should always adjust to be more like men.

    1. Moths*

      I agree that it’s nice to sometimes see people acknowledging that “I’m sorry” can be just fine to use at times. I think the push against it came from the days of the Lean In movement and the idea that if women just did things differently, they could gain more power in the office. I’m not saying that it’s good to apologize all the time and there are definitely times where it should be reigned in, but the idea that you shouldn’t say, “I’m sorry” and should use different wording instead has always struck me as a minor thing that people can nitpick when finding things for you to improve on, but that probably has no real effect on your standing and power in the office (again, always exceptions). But it’s easier to tell people to not say “I’m sorry” than to fix systemic power issues. If it’s not the culture in your office to say sorry, then by all means avoid it. But if it’s just how your office communicates and they’re basic social niceties, maybe let it be unless that’s truly the reason someone is being held back.

    2. Aggretsuko*

      Also, women can’t socially behave like men all the time because they can’t “get away with it” in the same way. We frequently have to “soften” or “make nice.”

  11. Chilipepper Attitude*

    I agree with the OP that all those “I’m sorry” statements in that context would bring me down too.

    I can tell when it is a throwaway phrase, like “sorry, can you help with this” or an occasional, “sorry I have to be out for that thing, thanks for covering.” But ALL. THE. TIME. would wear on me.

    How can the OP overcome this feeling? If this is the culture and the OP should not expect the culture to change for them, how can the OP adjust themself?

  12. ArtK*

    The trouble is that “I’m sorry” can be an apology, or it can be an expression of regret. Make sure that you’re not confusing one with the other. Or, it may be a shibboleth and meaningless except as a ritual.

  13. mlem*

    A colleague used to apologize for having to “ask a stupid question” or “being stupid” or the like, and I redirected that emphatically. Other colleagues began to join in, and she happily doesn’t do that anymore. If the OP’s coworkers are creating that kind of environment, sure, fix it.

    But if it’s something like, “Sorry, that time won’t work, I have the afternoon off to get my boiler fixed. Could we meet the next morning?” … it’s just a turn of phrase. (Unless people are delivering it in a particularly groveling manner, but if so, that’s what needs fixing.)

  14. ticktick*

    This dichotomy between “sorry” being an indication of responsibility and guilt versus “sorry” being an expression acknowledging unpleasant circumstances is precisely why Ontario’s Apology Act is a thing.

    1. Fran*

      Live in Ontario and had no idea it was an act. I would like if the government could live up to their apologies though (if they ever apologize!)

  15. Asenath*

    I have figured out that many people use “I’m sorry” only as an apology, but it took me a while to understand, because, well, I’m from Canada, and it’s used so frequently, just like in the stereotypical jokes about Canadians! And I, personally, find it an incredibly useful way to convey things as a kind of shorthand: “Sorry” can mean: to disturb you, but I have a question; that I can’t come in today because I’m sick; that I stepped out of the elevator without looking and nearly ran into you (but didn’t). And it can even be used as an apology, but then it’s usually specific “I’m sorry I was playing my music during your phone call; I won’t do it again.’ All I can suggest to OP is that it might help to think of it in anthropological terms; like examining and then getting used to a different culture. I’d bet a lot of the people who say “sorry” the most aren’t feeling in the slightest guilty most of the time.

    1. Fran*

      Canadian here as well and sorry is what we say. Also, as someone from NYC said above, it can be used for execuse me as well. Just getting off the subway, lots of sorries!

  16. ZugTheMegasaurus*

    There’s definitely a line on this between “polite platitude” and “harmful self-undermining.” I used to apologize *all the time*; I wasn’t confident in my job at that point, and a lifetime of social anxiety disorder means I constantly believe I’m a nuisance who people hate. I mean, I *never* sent an email without at least one “sorry” in it, even when nothing was wrong.

    An extremely senior VP (5 levels above me) had taken a liking to me and pulled me aside at one point to say I needed to knock it off. She told me it was a common bad habit drilled into women for sexist reasons and didn’t do anything except send the subconscious message that I was doing something wrong when I wasn’t.

    I was surprised how hard a habit it was to break! I kept writing my emails like usual, but would go through and remove any unnecessary apologies before sending, and eventually managed to train myself out of it. It honestly did affect how I felt about myself and my work, which I hadn’t expected. I started feeling a lot more confident and in-control once I was out of that constantly-sorry headspace.

    Now I only say sorry if something’s gone wrong (e.g., a delay in responding to something, a forgotten attachment, etc.) and there have been absolutely no negative consequences (at least, as far as I can tell). So it’s definitely something that can be worth changing, even though it’s super common and most people don’t think that hard about it.

    1. Irish Teacher*

      I think that depends to some extent on the culture though. If you are apologising significantly more than those around you, it can be self-undermining. But it sounds like apologising as a polite platitude is the expected norm in the LW’s office, so it is more likely that somebody would harm themselves by not doing so, as it could come across as being rude.

      If it were one person, I would say it would be worth the LW addressing it with them, as something that could harm them in that office, but it seems like it is something completely accepted there and the LW just doesn’t like it.

  17. Melanie Cavill*

    It looks like I’m going against the grain here but this sort of thing really irritates me. If it’s something you can fix, such as an error in your work, skip the apologies and focus on fixing it. If it isn’t something you can do anything about, like needing to be off for a sick child, then what do you expect an apology to accomplish? I’m of the opinion people should stop and think, “do I actually owe X a specific apology in this instance? Did I explicitly do something to them? Did I harm them in some way?” If not, I wish they would keep it to themselves and carry on.

    1. Water Snake*

      “what do you expect an apology to accomplish?”

      It’s a phatic expression. It accomplishes social cohesion by acknowledging the impact of a particular circumstance on other people (except in those pedants who insist on interpreting it literally). If you are primarily a functional communicator, phatic communication can be irritating. Give a little grace to people who are not primarily functional communicators and let the phatic expressions go.

      1. Dinwar*

        “(except in those pedants who insist on interpreting it literally)”

        As a general rule, unless you’re reading technical specs, a peer-reviewed publication, or a legal document, English shouldn’t be interpreted strictly literally. It’s an inherently poetic language, with a tremendous number of idioms, metaphors, allusions, and the like. And then there’s non-verbal communication. For example, does the person look apologetic, or do they look “business as usual”? Are they looking directly at you or are they avoiding your gaze? And then there’s cultural issues–ask for “biscuits and gravy” in London sometime if you don’t believe me!

        I’ve noticed that a surprising number of people on the internet have trouble understanding that…

        1. Melanie Cavill*

          As someone on the ASD spectrum, I find I’ve only gotten worse at interpreting non-literal cues and/or verbiage as I’ve gotten older; or I’m less likely to take the time to entertain that sort of thing. One of the two.

          1. Water Snake*

            I am also spectrum, and I have learned which phrases are meant literally and when.

            If the person is responsible for the thing they are saying “I’m sorry” for, it’s an apology (although it may not be sincere)/

            If the person is not responsible for the thing they are saying “I’m sorry” for, it’s an expression of regret for the circumstances.

            As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to care more about being a part of society and find that putting the time into determining when something is literal and when it is not is more rewarding than the opposite.

        1. usameisje*

          Someone needs a new hobby or more to do at work if they are getting this upset over a word choice.

          I’d honestly try avoiding dealing with someone who got this bothered by a simple word that can be used in a more abstract way than a literal apology. I’d wonder what other things they interpret in a stiffly concrete manner.

          1. Water Snake*

            Pretty much everything, when you are spectrum.

            Similar to how I think Melanie Cavill needs to give more grace to people who are less about functional communication, I think you need to give more grace to people who are very functional and/or very literal.

    2. Irish Teacher*

      I think what people mean to accomplish by including “sorry” is simply fulfilling a social convention and making the sentence sound politer. It’s simply softening language. “Sorry, but I need to leave early today” sound gentler than “I need to leave early today.”

      And people who use it in that way know full well they did not harm x and do not owe them a specific apology. They are not even really using “sorry” as an apology, but rather as a sort of way of saying “I am not trying to inconvenience you.”

      Like when a colleague who is really good about covering for other people asked if I could cover for her at a time I emphatically couldn’t, I told her so and added, “I’m sorry; I’d do it if I could.” I’m sure she knew that, but what I meant was that I would like to be able to help her out and that she hadn’t bothered me by asking.

      And I’m wondering if I need some softening language here, actually, ’cause I’m wondering if this sound blunter than I intend it to or as if I am being argumentative, when that isn’t my intention. Which I guess is largely why people add the “sorries,” because it’s hard to know how what you are saying comes across sometimes.

      And there is also a cultural aspect to it. Some cultures are more direct and others are more into phrasing things gently, for a whole host of reasons.

      1. Melanie Cavill*

        I think I may be a bit sensitive to this because I’ve dealt with coworkers that were perpetual apologisers, in the sense they used the word ‘sorry’ as punctuation and I struggled to figure out why they felt their behaviour merited such constant flagellation. It’s a behaviour I’ve exclusively seen from women, too, which is an imbalance I dearly wish did not exist.

        1. Humble Schoolmarm*

          As a sorry-loving Canadian, here are some tips to tell the difference between apology sorry and “I acknowledge the inconvenience” sorry

          Apology: Generally includes eye contact and or the apologizer giving you their full attention. Often used in a private or semi-private setting. The tone is generally serious or somber. Usually the “I’m sorry” is followed by a specific description of what the person is sorry for.

          Social lubricant: Said faster and with a lighter tone. Often said in a crowd or in passing. People will often leave out the “I’m” part or add a non-serious modifier like Oops.

        2. Irish Teacher*

          Yeah, I very much doubt they felt their behaviour merited constant flagellation. If they were just using it as punctuation, it was probably more like the way some people use “like” or whatever, more a thinking phrase than a comment on their behaviour.

          1. Marna Nightingale*

            I do have to add though, even as a highly apologetic Upper Canadian, I have occasionally worked with people who really were too prone to take blame, and who actually WERE always apologising for mildly inconveniencing me by, oh, you know, doing things that led to me needing to do things. As one does, in a workplace.

            In this case, assuming we were on generally good terms, I have often gotten quite good results with:

            “Rupert? You’re welcome. You really really are.”

            Which does a decent job of conveying “Yes, having you off sick is not as good as having you not off sick, but I’m just glad you’re feeling better and was perfectly happy to cover for you, you’d do it for me, oh by the way I watered your plants.”

  18. She of Many Hats*

    I wonder what the gender break down is for the usage of “I’m Sorry” language. I suspect women use it more from being conditioned that they are the ones responsible for not inconveniencing anyone in any way.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Also people tend to get angrier at women for asserting themselves or inconveniencing others, so they have to be socially apologetic.

    2. Irish Teacher*

      I wonder if this is also true of other historically marginalised groups. I would guess that groups that have traditionally been excluded from power might be more likely to soften their language and generally be more indirect, but I don’t have any evidence of this.

  19. Bat*

    Fellow commenters, help me out! I’m 100% with the OP here, but I see many of the commenters are not, and would love some help interacting with what seems to be a cultural difference. My question to you all is:

    What do you say in response when someone says sorry?

    I find them frustrating, and wonder if the OP does too, in part because I have NO IDEA how to respond to a “sorry” that is not a warranted apology or an obvious condolence (eg, “I’m sorry for your loss”). Something like, “Sorry I was out sick yesterday!” leaves me baffled.

    1. Dinwar*

      For my part I expect the other person to treat the statement as if the word “sorry” didn’t exist. So, if they responded to “Sorry I was out sick yesterday” with “I hope you’re feeling better” or “No worries, we had Arwen handle it” I wouldn’t even register that you’d ignored it. There’s nothing to respond to; the word is a space-filler, of almost no epistemic value.

    2. Water Snake*

      It’s a meaningless expression, you can respond with another meaningless expression, or, depending on the circumstance, you don’t necessarily need to respond directly at all.

      “I’m sorry I missed the meeting yesterday.”
      “Thanks, I’ll send you the notes.”

    3. Ava*

      personally, i just ignore the “sorry” and say “Glad you’re feeling better!”. Other people I’ve heard go with something along the lines of “no problem, glad to see you back!”

      the main point would be that since it isn’t really an apology, you don’t need to accept it like it’s an apology. it’s just a social niceity like “excuse me” (which, technically, is also a request for forgiveness in literal language!)

      reminds me a bit of that letter a while back where the writer was having trouble responding to “how are you” because they were reading it as an actual question rather than as a social niceity

    4. yetelmen*

      Generally, I can tell if it’s a conversational aid (acting as some sort of transition – “sorry to bug you – [xyz]”) or an actual apology where one is unnecessary (your standalone “Sorry I was out sick yesterday!”). In case one, I ignore it as though it were any other transitional language. Case two, a breezy “no worries!” usually lands fine.

    5. Irish Teacher*

      Depends on the context. In Ireland, a lot of the time, you respond with “sorry.” Not to “sorry, I was out sick yesterday,” but like if somebody says sorry for bumping into you, you reply by saying sorry for bumping in to them.

      For “sorry, but I need to leave early this afternoon,” you ignore the sorry and just respond the same way as if they’d said “I need to leave early this afternoon.” It’s just a politer way of saying the same thing and doesn’t require any change in response.

      For “sorry I was out sick yesterday,” you would usually say something like “oh, not at all. We were fine” or “of course not. If you’re sick, you’re sick.”

    6. Humble Schoolmarm*

      Agree with everyone above. You’re safe to ignore it entirely but a brief “thanks!”, “not to worry” or “no problem”, are all correct as well. The only weird exception is, as Irish Teacher said, if you bump in to someone. Then both parties are expected to say sorry.

      1. Fran*

        Just noticed your comment, summed it up perfectly. Seems to be a British, Irish, Canadian and Minnesotan thing ?

        1. Burr... it's cold in here*

          Ha! I’m Minnesotan and I agree that this poster is correct.
          If someone says, “Sorry, I’m going to be out that day.” or something of the sort, I say, “No problem!” and then continue on. Because the person is saying “I’m sorry that this may inconvenience you, but I will be out that day,” and my response is saying, “It’s not an inconvenience (or it’s not a big inconvenience, etc.)” If it is going to be a big inconvenience, I take that as an opportunity to figure out the issues “Oh, no worries but before you go, how should I handle XYZ.”
          Bumping into someone, both people apologize, even if just one person did the bumping. I don’t know why.

  20. Not in your timezone*

    In Australia the cultural convention is to say ‘no worries’. I think Americans use ‘no problem’.

    ‘sorry I was sick’
    ‘no worries, hope you’re feeling better’

    We are an apologising culture but also one where no real response is expected unless it’s a real deal apology.

    1. Not in your timezone*

      Sorry, this didn’t nest. This was a response to Bat above who asked how to respond to minor apologies.

  21. Sorceress17*

    The most effective response I’ve found is to say “You have nothing to be sorry for.” in response to people who seem to start any sentence with “I’m sorry.” It really does work! When I used it in a specific situation, it took maybe 8 hours for the “I’m sorry-ers” to stop saying “Sorry.” It was magical!

  22. Moi*

    In Canada we say sorry so much that we had to pass a law stating that apologizing is not an admission of guilt. It’s called the Apology Act Sorry, if you already knew this.

    1. A Person*

      There are similar laws in Australia, though we don’t have a standalone Act. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same in a lot of Commonwealth countries.

  23. Retired (but not really)*

    I was once chided for saying “I’m sorry” when someone was telling me about some difficulty they had encountered. They assured me that it certainly was not my fault and I shouldn’t be sorry about it. I tried to explain that I was letting them know that I wished they hadn’t had to deal with whatever the difficulty was, not claiming responsibility for it.
    I had never even considered that someone might see “I’m sorry” as claiming responsibility. That doesn’t even make any kind of sense to me!

  24. CheetoFingers*

    As a woman from the Midwest, my casual “I’m sorry” is not usually an admission of guilt (I mean, I even apologize to furniture I bump into but I’m not out here waiting for the table’s forgiveness). The number of people who insist that it’s not feminist or it demonstrates a lack of self-worth really bothers me. I mean yes, it can mean those things, but it can also be a colloquial expression. I’ll say it’s an expression and they’ll insist I’m saying it so much because I’m a woman. I guess the latest thing is to say “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry” because it conveys gratitude for people putting up with you, rather than an apology for taking up space, which is not what I’m doing to begin with, and yet I’ve had well-meaning friends argue that I should switch to this. For me, I’m sorry is synonymous with “ope.” I don’t hear men getting policed for using ope. Why? Because it’s incredibly condescending to assume everyexpression is some kind of internalized sexism.

    1. Burr... it's cold in here*

      I work with people on the east coast who comment on my apologizing. And I say in response, “Oh, I’m Minnesotan and it’s how we communicate! Please just ignore.” and then move on. It’s a valid form of communication that has meaning and purpose – it softens things, offers people the opportunity to acknowledge that we are all aware of a minor inconvenience without turning into A Thing, and is just part of a style of communication.

  25. Me-llamo-T-Bone*

    I’m not sure if this is a me issue, but the link isn’t working. It brings me to Inc but the page says “Article Not Found. We’re sorry for any inconvenience. We can’t find the page you’re looking for.”

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