Photo credit: Javier Calvo,

Is saying “I’m Sorry” a Habit?

For some people, saying “I’m sorry” is nearly impossible, but for others, those words spill out so often that they’ve practically lost all meaning. Merriam-Webster defines “sorry” as “feeling sorrow, regret, or penitence,” but today, the word has come to mean much more — and consequently, much less.

If you’re one of those people who say “sorry” about everything, you probably don’t think much about it —in fact, you may not even realize you’re saying it. Unfortunately, others do and it may be affecting how they perceive you at the office. Over-apologizing isn’t just an irritating habit for some — saying “sorry” could actually be holding you back at work.

Here are a few common situations where it’s easy to overuse the word “sorry”:

  • As Filler: Some of us use “sorry” as a filler word to avoid pauses in our conversations: “Sorry, I’m just eating my lunch.” We may have also developed the habit of saying “um,” “uh,” or “like” in the same way: “I think we should move forward, sorry, uh, with the project as planned.”
  • To Show Sympathy: Apologizing for others’ misfortune has become a common way to empathize or share comfort: “Sorry the boss wasn’t happy with your work” or “Sorry your daughter got sick and you missed the meeting.”
  • To Show Respect: Many times, we apologize preemptively as a sign of respect or to appear considerate: “Sorry to interrupt you” or “Sorry, I just need to take this call.”
  • To Soften Confrontation: We sometimes say “sorry” to avoid hurting someone’s feelings when we disagree either with their opinion or with the demands of the situation: “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that’s the best strategy” or “Sorry, but I’m not going to fudge those numbers.”
  • When Someone Else is at Fault: We often apologize for others’ mistakes to disguise the fact that we’re assigning the consequences of a negative situation to the speaker to avoid confrontation: “Sorry, I just need to get that data” (that you were supposed to have done last week so I could complete my report), or “Sorry, can you keep it down?” (instead of standing here in the middle of the hallway disrupting the entire office with your conversation).

Sorry. What’s the problem?

It’s good to be empathetic and to approach confrontation with delicacy, right? While that’s true, saying “sorry” too often can influence the way that you’re perceived at the office. At best, your colleagues and managers might find your over-apologizing to be self-deprecating or they may believe that you lack confidence and need constant reassurance. At worst, hearing “sorry” from you constantly might lead them to think that you’re weak, insincere, or even incompetent.

Saying “sorry” doesn’t just affect the way others see you; it can also impact your self-esteem. Constantly apologizing in the workplace for your presence and needs can lead you to believe that you don’t have anything to offer, that what you say isn’t important, or that your contribution isn’t as worthwhile as everyone else’s. When you overuse “I’m sorry,” you start to believe that you actually have something to be sorry for.

Sorry. Not Sorry.

To stop apologizing in the workplace starts the same way as breaking any bad habit. The first step is to figure out which situations trigger your “I’m sorry” response.

  • Does your fear of your boss make you tiptoe around him or her with apologies?
  • Do you look for reassurance from your coworkers because you worry that you’re not qualified?
  • Are you just trying to seem like a nice person?

Before you can change your behavior, you have to understand why it’s happening. Since it can often be hard to identify a habit that’s become so ingrained, ask a trusted colleague to write down when you say “sorry” and why, or record a few of your interactions at work so you can listen to them later. If you’re apologizing at work, you’re probably doing it at home too, so tell your loved ones to stop you the second the word comes out of your mouth. A great way to start is to ask friends and family members to reject your “sorry” statements.

Once you know when and why you’re saying “sorry,” you can come up with some good counter-strategies to stop over-apologizing and become more assertive going forward.

  • Make a list of the ways that you can communicate the same points without using “sorry.”
  • Trade “Sorry, is now still a good time to meet?” with “It’s time for our meeting — are you still free to chat?”
  • Instead of “I’m so sorry, but that’s not what you asked me to do,” try “I understood your instructions differently. Did we miscommunicate about what you needed?”

You’ll find that when you communicate your point directly, an apology will no longer feel necessary. And after you’ve come up with your apology alternatives, you’ll be ready to implement the sorry switch-out!

Practice Makes Perfect

Eventually, practice will make perfect and you can phase the inappropriate “sorry” out of your vocabulary. Of course, there are still times when it’s acceptable to apologize. If you hurt someone’s feelings or made a mistake, accepting responsibility for your behavior and offering an apology is still the best course of action to help fix the situation.

But if you’re concerned that your constant apologizing in the workplace is part of a bigger problem like a lack of confidence, a life coach can help you strengthen your self-esteem and develop your assertiveness skills. You can also pursue your own life coach training to build up your communication skills and enhance other areas of professional development too.

Alarmed by your over apologizing? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you may be undercutting yourself at work. (You see what we did there?) It’s easy to let apologies like that slip mindlessly into your conversations but with the right tools and a little practice, you can take yourself from “sorry” to success!

Also published on Medium.