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Want Power? Stop Saying ‘Sorry’ So Much

Apologies have become more of a reflex than a real expression of contrition and overusing them might be holding you back

Tue, Oct 25, 2022 8:32amGrey Clock 4 min

Sorry, I’m just now seeing your email! (You sent it 15 minutes ago.)

Sorry that you completely misinterpreted that thing I said.

Sorry you just rammed into me with your grocery-store cart.

The apology is running amok in conversations and communications. We drop it indiscriminately, crying mea culpa for all manner of things we really shouldn’t be sorry for—and diluting the apologies that truly matter. Is it time to stop? Could we even cut back if we wanted to?

“I wasn’t really that sorry,” admits Louise Julig, a freelance writer in Encinitas, Calif., who found she was constantly apologising for the “delay” when replying to notes, even when there wasn’t much of a delay at all. “Why am I saying this thing? I don’t know.”

“Sorry” has lost its meaning, she realised, no longer a heartfelt declaration of remorse but a knee-jerk response. Now, faced with the blinking cursor of a blank email, Ms. Julig asks herself, did I legitimately miss something, or mess someone else up? If the answer is no, she’s not sorry.

“Don’t give away your power,” counsels Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford Graduate School of Business and author of a book about commanding authority at work. Apologising in business, especially when you’ve actually done something wrong, is just asking for trouble, he says.

People are never satisfied with an apology, he adds. Grovelling and exhibiting vulnerability only make you look weak and sink team morale.

Standing your ground comes with risks, he allows. You’ll piss some people off. You might not be liked. He thinks it’s worth it.

“You can either conform to what people want you to be, or you can decide that you are going to risk offending people,” he says. “Life is about trade-offs.”

When I searched my sent emails for the phrase, “Sorry for the delay,” the result was too many hits for Gmail to give me an exact count.

I tried, in the course of reporting this column, to cut back on my apologies. Mostly I failed, catching myself exclaiming sorry! when dialling in three minutes late for a call. A person I contacted for this piece apologised for only being available one of the days I suggested we chat, not the other. I flashed back to a clip of Taylor Swift, in which she apologises for “getting on her soapbox” about misogyny, then quickly catches herself.

“We’re, like, ‘Sorry, was I loud?’” the pop star says in “Miss Americana,” the Netflix documentary. “In my own house that I bought. With the songs that I wrote. About my own life.”

Words have consequences.

“Always feeling like you need to say ‘sorry’ makes you kind of feel like crap,” says Jen Fisher, the chief well-being officer for Deloitte. Last year, she logged her own apologies, flagging the ones that felt unnecessary and replacing them with expressions of gratitude.

Have to move a meeting? Try, “I appreciate your flexibility,” or “I’m grateful for your understanding,” she says. Remember that it’s not your responsibility to apologise for things out of your control, such as the weather or a client moving a deadline. Putting “sorry” on loop waters down the moments when you really do need to show remorse, she adds.

And of course, people often wield “sorry” to mean exactly the opposite, more a passive-aggressive insult than real contrition.

Shedding “sorry” can be empowering. Hannah Szabo grew up in Wisconsin, where—as in much of the Midwest, Canada and other regions—“sorry” sometimes serves as a conversation starter. She would drop one in during a pause in conversation, or when she felt uncomfortable.

Then she moved to Brazil. She was shocked to find that the students she was teaching barely apologised. At first, she was offended. Now, she basks in a culture without reflexive apologies.

Back in the Midwest on a recent trip, she almost grew angry when her mother apologised for accidentally sticking her seat belt in the wrong buckle.

“That does not qualify for a sorry, Mom,” she told her. “Take that back.”

Women apologise more than men, but a female co-worker’s apology doesn’t necessarily mean she’s claiming blame, says Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University. She might just be trying to get her work done with a dose of graciousness, for example smoothing over a misunderstanding with, “Sorry, what I meant was…”

“Everything we’re doing is on some level trying to show we’re a good person at the same time that we’re trying to accomplish something,” Dr. Tannen says.

When I message “So sorry to bug you…” to my boss before asking a question that’s a necessary part of both our jobs, I’m showing respect for power differentials at the office, Dr. Tannen notes.

Still, some misinterpret women’s apologies as incompetence. When British leader Liz Truss last week apologised “for the mistakes” in pushing a risky tax plan, it was met with calls to resign. A few days later, she did.

Be aware of how others respond when you use words of contrition, Dr. Tannen cautions. If colleagues call out your apologising, you might explain that you were just saying you were sorry a thing happened, and not sorry sorry. If you hear that feedback often, consider an audit like Ms. Fisher’s.

Kingston Vickers tried. After moving to Texas years ago, the native Canadian resolved to remove the “ehs” and “sorrys” from his vocabulary. Doing so consumed so much mental effort that he grew flustered when talking and wasn’t as effective at his sales job.

Now he embraces his proclivity for apologies, and says his work has benefited. Apologising for his clients’ struggles or when he’s about to make an ask of them, builds trust, he says. It’s also a way of showing empathy.

“People underestimate the power of a kind word nowadays,” he adds.


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

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A new trading year kicked off just weeks ago. Already it bears little resemblance to the carnage of 2022.

After languishing throughout last year, growth stocks have zoomed higher. Tesla Inc. and Nvidia Corp., for example, have jumped more than 30%. The outlook for bonds is brightening after a historic rout. Even bitcoin has rallied, despite ongoing effects from the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX.

The rebound has been driven by renewed optimism about the global economic outlook. Investors have embraced signs that inflation has peaked in the U.S. and abroad. Many are hoping that next week the Federal Reserve will slow its pace of interest-rate increases yet again. China’s lifting of Covid-19 restrictions pleasantly surprised many traders who have welcomed the move as a sign that more growth is ahead.

Still, risks loom large. Many investors aren’t convinced that the rebound is sustainable. Some are worried about stretched stock valuations, or whether corporate earnings will face more pain down the road. Others are fretting that markets aren’t fully pricing in the possibility of a recession, or what might happen if the Fed continues to fight inflation longer than currently anticipated.

We asked five investors to share how they are positioning for that uncertainty and where they think markets could be headed next. Here is what they said:

‘Animal spirits’ could return

Cliff Asness, founder of AQR Capital Management, acknowledges that he wasn’t expecting the run in speculative stocks and digital currencies that has swept markets to kick off 2023.

Bitcoin prices have jumped around 40%. Some of the stocks that are the most heavily bet against on Wall Street are sitting on double-digit gains. Carvana Co. has soared nearly 64%, while MicroStrategy Inc. has surged more than 80%. Cathie Wood‘s ARK Innovation ETF has gained about 29%.

If the past few years have taught Mr. Asness anything, it is to be prepared for such run-ups to last much longer than expected. His lesson from the euphoria regarding risky trades in 2020 and 2021? Don’t count out the chance that the frenzy will return again, he said.

“It could be that there are still these crazy animal spirits out there,” Mr. Asness said.

Still, he said that hasn’t changed his conviction that cheaper stocks in the market, known as value stocks, are bound to keep soaring past their peers. There might be short spurts of outperformance for more-expensive slices of the market, as seen in January. But over the long term, he is sticking to his bet that value stocks will beat growth stocks. He is expecting a volatile, but profitable, stretch for the trade.

“I love the value trade,” Mr. Asness said. “We sing about it to our clients.”

—Gunjan Banerji

Keeping dollar’s moves in focus

For Richard Benson, co-chief investment officer of Millennium Global Investments Ltd., no single trade was more important last year than the blistering rise of the U.S. dollar.

Once a relatively placid area of markets following the 2008 financial crisis, currencies have found renewed focus from Wall Street and Main Street. Last year the dollar’s unrelenting rise dented multinational companies’ profits, exacerbated inflation for countries that import American goods and repeatedly surprised some traders who believed the greenback couldn’t keep rallying so fast.

The factors that spurred the dollar’s rise are now contributing to its fall. Ebbing inflation and expectations of slower interest-rate increases from the Fed have sent the dollar down 1.7% this year, as measured by the WSJ Dollar Index.

Mr. Benson is betting more pain for the dollar is ahead and sees the greenback weakening between 3% and 5% over the next three to six months.

“When the biggest central bank in the world is on the move, look at everything through their lens and don’t get distracted,” said Mr. Benson of the London-based currency fund manager, regarding the Fed.

This year Mr. Benson expects the dollar’s fall to ripple similarly far and wide across global economies and markets.

“I don’t see many people complaining about a weaker dollar” over the next few months, he said. “If the dollar is falling, that economic setup should also mean that tech stocks should do quite well.”

Mr. Benson said he expects the dollar’s fall to brighten the outlook for some emerging- market assets, and he is betting on China’s offshore yuan as the country’s economy reopens. He sees the euro strengthening versus the dollar if the eurozone’s economy continues to fare better than expected.

—Caitlin McCabe

Stocks still appear overvalued

Even after the S&P 500 fell 15% from its record high reached in January 2022, U.S. stocks still look expensive, said Rupal Bhansali, chief investment officer of Ariel Investments, who oversees $6.7 billion in assets.

Of course, the market doesn’t appear as frothy as it did for much of 2020 and 2021, but she said she expects a steeper correction in prices ahead.

The broad stock-market gauge recently traded at 17.9 times its projected earnings over the next 12 months, according to FactSet. That is below the high of around 24 hit in late 2020, but above the historical average over the past 20 years of 15.7, FactSet data show.

“The old habit was buy the dip,” Ms. Bhansali said. “The new habit should be sell the rip.”

One reason Ms. Bhansali said the selloff might not be over yet? The market is still underestimating the Fed.

Investors repeatedly mispriced how fast the Fed would move in 2022, wrongly expecting the central bank to ease up on its rate increases. They were caught off guard by Fed Chair Jerome Powell‘s aggressive messages on interest rates. It stoked steep selloffs in the stock market, leading to the most turbulent year since the 2008 financial crisis. Now investors are making the same mistake again, Ms. Bhansali said.

Current stock valuations don’t reflect the big shift coming in central-bank policy, which she thinks will have to be more aggressive than many expect. Though broader measures of inflation have been falling, some slices, such as services inflation, have proved stickier. Ms. Bhansali is positioning for such areas as healthcare, which she thinks would be more insulated from a recession than the rest of the market, to outperform.

“The Fed is determined to win the war since they lost the battle,” Ms. Bhansali said.

—Gunjan Banerji

A better year for bonds seen

Gone are the days when tumbling bond yields left investors with few alternatives to stocks. Finally, bonds are back, according to Niall O’Sullivan of Neuberger Berman, an investment manager overseeing about $427 billion in client assets at the end of 2022.

After a turbulent year for the fixed-income market in 2022, bonds have kicked off the new year on a more promising note. The Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index—composed largely of U.S. Treasurys, highly rated corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities—climbed 3% so far this year on a total return basis through Thursday’s close. That is the index’s best start to a year since it began in 1989, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

Mr. O’Sullivan, the chief investment officer of multi asset strategies for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Neuberger Berman, said the single biggest conversation he is currently having with clients is how to increase fixed-income exposure.

“Strategically, the facts have changed. When you look at fixed income as an asset class…they’re now all providing yield, and possibly even more importantly, actual cash coupons of a meaningful size,” he said. “That is a very different world to the one we’ve been in for quite a long time.”

Mr. O’Sullivan said it is important to reconsider how much of an advantage stocks now hold over bonds, given what he believes are looming risks for the stock market. He predicts that inflation will be harder to wrangle than investors currently anticipate and that the Fed will hold its peak interest rate steady for longer than is currently expected. Even more worrying, he said, it will be harder for companies to continue passing on price increases to consumers, which means earnings could see bigger hits in the future.

“That is why we are wary on the equity side,” he said.

Among the products that Mr. O’Sullivan said he favours in the fixed-income space are higher-quality and shorter-term bonds. Still, he added, it is important for investors to find portfolio diversity outside bonds this year. For that, he said he views commodities as attractive, specifically metals such as copper, which could continue to benefit from China’s reopening.

—Caitlin McCabe


Find the fear, and find the value

Ramona Persaud, a portfolio manager at Fidelity Investments, said she can still identify bargains in a pricey market by looking in less-sanguine places. Find the fear, and find the value, she said.

“When fear really rises, you can buy some very well-run businesses,” she said.

Take Taiwan’s semiconductor companies. Concern over global trade and tensions with China have weighed on the shares of chip makers based on the island. But those fears have led many investors to overlook the competitive advantages those companies hold over rivals, she said.

“That is a good setup,” said Ms. Persaud, who considers herself a conservative value investor and manages more than $20 billion across several U.S. and Canadian funds.

The S&P 500 is trading above fair value, she said, which means “there just isn’t widespread opportunity,” and investors might be underestimating some of the risks that lie in waiting.

“That tells me the market is optimistic,” said Ms. Persaud. “That would be OK if the risks were not exogenous.”

Those challenges, whether rising interest rates and Fed policy or Russia’s war in Ukraine and concern over energy-security concerns in Europe, are complicated, and in many cases, interrelated.

It isn’t all bad news, she said. China ended its zero-Covid restrictions. A milder winter in Europe has blunted the effects of the war in Ukraine on energy prices and helped the continent sidestep recession, and inflation is slowing.

“These are reasons the market is so happy,” she said.

—Justin Baer

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